REDUX: Place In The Sun: What If Italy Joined The Central Powers?



    I must begin by thanking all the readers and commentators who made the original Place In the Sun what it was! Well over two hundred people actively participated in the original thread, and countless more read and liked without commenting. With your help, we came in second place in the 2021 Post-1900 Turtledove Awards, for which I remain deeply grateful.

    The TL was an integral part of my life for well over a year, yet I gradually succumbed to writer's fatigue and burnout. Abandoning it unexpectedly in autumn 2021 was hard, yet I deemed it the right choice at the time. Not a day passed, however, when I wasn't thinking about TTL: What were my favourite parts to write? What scenes and characters meant the most to me? What implausibilities and omissions existed? World War I, and the notion of a Central Powers victory in particular, has intrigued me since I was a kid, and this timeline represents the culmination of that interest. This timeline, and what it represents, kept me going through some dark patches in the Real World. No other creative outlet, however enjoyable, could match Place In the Sun; it all felt like a stop-gap. Crafting an idea from historical fact and imagination, putting it into a coherent narrative, and entertaining others with it is an experience with which nothing else can compare. Simply put, I loved Place In the Sun too much to ever truly abandon it or ever stop wondering how I could have improved on it. Eight months after laying down 1.0, the TL returns.

    Many errors and omissions- some large, some small- have since become apparent. Most are due to a lack of planning on my part- I began 1.0 with few ideas other than "Italy joins the Central Powers, cool stuff happens afterwards". While fun to write, this led to a slightly confused narrative. Once the conflicts in France, Danubia (Austria-Hungary), India, and Mexico resolved themselves, I began running out of ideas and lost enthusiasm shortly thereafter. Far more research and preplanning has gone into this Redux than the original, and I hope to make this a work of "hard" alternate history, especially close to the PoD. In terms of writing style, I hope to make each individual chapter shorter (I found the large walls of text in 1.0 daunting) and more specific, yet to release more of them.

    Feedback, constructive criticism, etc, are all actively requested!
    Chapter I- Lloyd George's Blunder
  • Chapter I

    Lloyd George's Blunder

    "Do you really think it will come to war?"

    The question was asked in bureaus, offices, and homes, by politicians, kings, financiers, and mothers. Of course not, they reassured themselves. Peace was inevitable. The war-like do not inherit the earth. Yet every day the news from Vienna and Berlin grew worse and worse.

    And then the peace for which so much had sacrificed over so many decades died in a week.

    As the world fell apart in summer 1914 nothing seemed certain. Assurances of victory died on the Marne, and it slowly dawned on the people of Europe that there was no escape. Honor compelled the strong to keep fighting; survival compelled the weak. Anglo-French panic became grim resolve to reverse their losses. German hubris, born of chasing their enemies across the plains, turned to desperation. The Dual Monarchy found its lofty self-image based on history, not prowess, wanting. Russia's legendary manpower proved meaningless without logistics and leadership.

    So the war lengthened. And every day made peace that much harder to achieve.

    Some took refuge in neutrality. Once a German target, the Netherlands were spared, and would become Germany's main trade conduit throughout the war. No Scandinavian nation, cultural ties with Germany notwithstanding, had any animus against London or Berlin. Bulgaria loathed its neighbours but, without help, was powerless to act. Domestic tensions kept Romania and Greece out of the war. Economic problems and geographic distance dissuaded either Iberian state from joining. Ottoman Turkey remained neutral for months before declaring for the Central Powers in November. Swiss neutrality was a given. None of this overly concerned Berlin and Vienna.

    Italian neutrality, on the other hand, was seen as a snub.

    The Kingdom of Italy had spent the fifty years since its founding in search of a path. Disunity had been the status quo since the seventh century because it favoured outside actors: the Papacy guarded its enclave around Rome, Naples had enjoyed Spanish patronage before becoming a power in its own right, France had vigorously defended its interests in the north-west, and the Habsburgs had maintained a controlling stake in the peninsula's affairs. Compromise and conquest had been necessary to secure Risorgimento, and the end result was an internationally isolated, internally divided state. Bismarck's youthful Germany, sharing Italy's need for a new path and animosity with France, guaranteed its security in 1879. Though Austria-Hungary subsequently entered the alliance, few Italians saw them as an ally, and in 1912 both agreed to maintain the status quo in the Balkans. Imperial misadventures and a poor showing against Ottoman Turkey degraded Italy's military value as an ally. (2) Rapprochement with France and deep economic dependence on Britain left Italy with attachments to both camps. Italian irredentists coveted Austrian Tyrol and Trieste just as much as French Savoy. Thus, on the (entirely accurate) pretext that Austria-Hungary, as the aggressor, was in violation of the Alliance terms, Italy declared neutrality in summer 1914. Berlin and Vienna were angered but not entirely surprised: "what could one expect from slothful Italians?" (3)

    Italy watched the first months of fighting with Prime Minister Antonio Salandra's cynical doctrine of sacro egoisimo- sacred self interest- in mind. Fear that a quickly triumphant Germany would turn on them faded with the Marne. Regardless of who triumphed, the Great Powers would be weaker postwar, leaving Italy proportionally stronger. The rupturing of international trade and subsequent rise in food prices made Italian exports more lucrative; ports in Naples and Sicily provided a valve for German trade. Italy's good offices facilitated exchanges of detainees and prisoners and served as a base for Red Cross efforts (enhancing the country's international image). Austro-German diplomats found themselves fighting with their Franco-British counterparts for time with Salandra and his ministers. Intriguing offers were made by all, yet Italy refused to pick a side.

    Salandra, however, was not operating in a vaccuum, and decisions taken in London would push Italy closer to war.

    Italy had an enormous net deficit of coal- ten million tonnes a year, most of which came from Great Britain. (4) After Italy's declaration of neutrality, British diplomats quietly agreed to continue exports "subject to the will of our Government". With winter months away (and the Italian climate in any case milder than their northern neighbours), Rome was hopeful the war could end before major coal shortages piled up. As it became apparent that the war would last past Christmas, however, the Italians sought confirmation of British imports.

    They soon received a rude shock.

    Great Britain, like all combatants, had banked on a short, victorious conflict. Consequently, London had failed to shift its economy to a war footing. David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, dreaded the consequences of this failure. Lloyd George proposed several revenue-raising schemes to the Cabinet on 1 October, foremost of which concerned the conservation of coal, of which Britain was a net exporter. Demand in Europe, the Empire, and Latin America made this a lucrative trade, and, contrary to later accusations, Lloyd George never planned to suspend British exports until war's end. His error was to think like a banker, not a strategist. Mass production of military equipment would cost a great deal, as would transporting and supplying armies in Europe and elsewhere. Vastly underestimating Britain's capacity to produce and store coal (4), Lloyd George assumed the country needed to maximise its supply, to save money if for no other reason. And with Germany and Belgium- prewar competitors in the trade- sealed off by the blockade, the British could afford to raise prices on what they did export. Secretary of War Lord Kitchener added that exporting to potentially hostile nations such as Ottoman Turkey or Italy was unwise in wartime. The Coal Regulation Act, setting export ceilings and tariffs, passed six weeks later. (5)

    Antonio Salandra cautiously visited British ambassador Rennell Rodd on the last day of November 1914, reminding him of "our longstanding agreements in the fields of coal and iron ore which have proved so profitable to us both". The message, though phrased diplomatically, was clear: without cheap, abundant British coal, his nation could not power itself. Rodd replied, ice in his veins, that he lacked the authority to modify London's policy.

    Italy was on its own.

    1. Norman Angell, The Great Illusion, 1910
    2. Slightly OT, but for an interesting treatment of this see pp. 275-278 of American Empire: A Global History (AG Hopkins, 2018)
    3. An unfair sentiment but there you go.
    4. Confess to not having researched this particular economic aspect of the war too deeply, but Britain's ability to stay warm throughout the conflict surely attests to a sizeable and efficient reserve- no?
    5. This is the new PoD. With Italy losing much of its coal from Britain, it has far less incentive to stay neutral and Entente diplomacy is generally less effective.

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    Chapter II- A Cold Winter
  • Chapter II

    A Cold Winter

    The loss of British coal imports created a ticking time bomb. Italy produced just over half a million tonnes of coal a year and imported twenty times as much. The Regia Marina ran on cheap British coal; factories and homes used it to keep the lights on. The advent of winter, threatening to leave millions unable to cook and heat their homes, deepened the need. Italy's future as a modern industrial state was at risk.

    Reserves began running low in December 1914, with prices ticking up accordingly. The military received priority, and the handful of rich industrialists often bribed the government into securing their supply. This left little for the people, who would stand in queues for hours in the hopes of paying twice as much for half of what they'd have received a year ago. Violence over perceived iniquities was common, whether directed at price-gouging suppliers or just those who seemed better off. By January, many Italians were spending half their budgets on coal. Alternatives such as firewood could heat homes but not power machinery. Many became reliant on churches or town halls for cooking stoves and heat. As always, the divide between north and south reared its ugly head: Northerners, subject to cold Alpine winters and in need of fuel for industry, resented agricultural southerners basking in Mediterranean warmth.

    Knock-on effects abounded. Factories, attempting to cut their overheads, reduced production. The costs of energy sharply reduced profit for railroads and steamships, which cut their schedules and laid off workers accordingly. Southern grain and vegetables thus took longer and cost more to reach northern consumers, raising food prices without benefitting producers. All this caused inflation, driving the economy to the precipice by March. Strict coal rationing removed an element of chaos and uncertainty but cost Salandra popularity.

    Above all, people blamed the British, who in the words of one Milan editorial:

    "...have by their miserliness and preoccupation with a foolish war done irreperable damage to peoples once considered their friends... Weak though Italy is now, we shall remember this snub."
    Though an Italian declaration of war was by no means certain in January 1915, popular anger against Britain was fierce. Part came from shock. Great Britain had supported Italian unification fifty years ago, backed its colonial ventures, and been a reliable energy provider. British investment was common in the country and many progressive Italians viewed Britain as a vibrant constitutional monarchy to emulate. The question of why Britain would do such a thing was painful- but the answer was agonising. Britain had sold out their ally of five decades to save money in wartime. What Lloyd George viewed as an unpleasant cost-cutting measure, the Italians saw as a deep betrayal. Many believed the British ought to be grateful to Italy- had they not defied their treaty obligations to Germany and Austria-Hungary? Did not their neutrality make the Mediterranean Sea an Entente lake? And how did Britain thank them? By abandoning their economy, leaving their cities to freeze, and production and transport to grind to a halt!

    This thanks from "Perfious Albion" would be remembered.

    Salandra feared for his future. Though blaming the British was popular (and entirely justified), he knew that as Prime Minister the crisis was his responsibility. If a confidence vote was held today, would he survive? What about six weeks hence? He knew that, unlike some prior panics, this crisis would not simply resolve itself. Fortunately, unlike such panics, the root cause was simple and the remedy clear: maximise imports.

    Britain was no longer an option. They were willing to sell only a fraction of what they had prewar and charged obscene prices. Besides, as the ones at fault for the crisis, Italian honour forbade giving them a single lira. That left neutrals such as Sweden and the United States, but above all Italy's old Triple Alliance partners, Germany and Austria. Prewar, Germany had exported millions of tonnes of coal a year, much of which had gone to nations now in the Entente. With its wartime needs met, the High Seas Fleet largely sitting in port, and the mines of occupied Belgium at its disposal, Germany had an abundant surplus. (1) Berlin needed an export market, and deepening relations with them would make Britain regret harming Italy.

    After surviving a confidence vote on Ash Wednesday by a margin of ten votes, Salandra asked for three more months to fix the crisis, at the end of which they could do what they pleased. Parliament and the people humoured him, and the next day Salandra telephoned Ambassador Hans von Flotow. He apologised for his "infidelity" to the Triple Alliance and, while he didn't promise to join the war, promised an "enhancement of relations at the expense of our mutual enemies." Subsequent meetings led to talk of Italian sanctions against Britain and France in exchange for ten million tonnes of German coal over the next twelve months, to be paid at 1913 prices. Lacking the authority to sign such an agreement, Von Flotow passed the matter to Berlin. Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow supported the measure: besides preventing a nominal ally from slipping away, this enabled German propaganda to present themselves as saving the "freezing Italian people" from "British miserliness." Diplomatic pressure led to Switzerland permitting the use of its railroads for transport, though they charged a steep rate. The Ministry of Economics insisted on cutting the total to 7.5 million tonnes- there was, after all, a war on. Nonetheless, pen was put to paper on April 1, 1915: the first cartloads embanked from Munich a month later.

    The agreement with Germany alleviated Italian pain. Energy prices dropped throughout May, and the economic setbacks of the winter played out in reverse. The logistical grid and industrial networks returned to full capacity, bringing workers back and reducing prices. Inflation abated and public confidence returned. Rations, though they remained on the books, grew throughout May and June. Salandra went before Parliament on May 17 and recieved overwhelming support. Cries of "viva la Germania!" and "abbasso la Bretagna!" filled the streets. Italian and German officials developed relationships and gained experience working with each other.

    By June 1915, Italy was decidedly pro-German, yet remained neutral. Its economic recovery was parlous, and Salandra lived in fear of another supply shock- or worse, a vote of no confidence. The inevitable economic and political disruptions of war would impede recovery and might threaten his ministry. Though the average Italian now felt grateful to Germany and disliked Britain, he valued his life too much to want any part of a seemingly endless war. If the Entente won, Italy would make the best of it; if the Central Powers won- increasingly likely as the Austro-Germans evicted the Russians from Poland- it could expect thanks for what von Jagow called its "benevolent neutrality".

    Things would come to a head, however, after another British blunder pushed Italy off the cliff.

    1. Much credit to @NoMommsen for these statistics from this thread.
    2. Don't speak Italian, so please correct me if this is wrong!
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    Chapter III- A Spark At Sea
  • Chapter III

    A Spark At Sea

    Despite its new links with Germany, Italy's economic situation remained precarious. As long as it remained at peace, its primary economic objective was maintaining living standards, not the production of war materiel. However, prewar it had been reliant on trade with many nations- coal imports from Britain, food exports across the Mediterranean and to America, exports to the colonies, etc. That trade web no longer existed. Merchant vessels faced strict scrutiny in belligerent territorial waters; neutrals tightened security to prevent abuse by the combatants. Many nations, as the Coal Regulation Act demonstrates, hoarded their resources lest they be needed for the war effort. Combatant populations accepted shortages- there was a war on- reducing the political threat to their elected governments. However, no man is an island, and economic disorder did not stop at national borders. Italy's economy remained sluggish entering summer 1915, but unlike von Bethmann-Hollweg, Asquith, or Viviani (1), Salandra could not tell his population they suffered for victory.

    There was nothing for it, his ministers told him, other than to maximise the volume of trade and wait for peace. Salandra consoled himself with the fact that Italy was still better off than the nations at war (it was a favourite spot for refugees and dissidents), would not take a single casualty, and would enter the postwar world with a relatively undamaged economy. Government propaganda depicted a rosy-cheeked woman standing above a wasteland, Italian flag in one hand and a bushel of wheat in the other. "Italia- Pacha e Prospera!" Salandra believed Italy's neutral status made it a politically viable trade partner: the question was what could it sell and to whom?

    Germany, never self-sufficient in food, was an obvious consumer. The imports which had historically sustained it were vanishing, and the demands of war exacerbated the strain. Besides, shipping foodstuffs north would reciprocate German generosity with their coal. With Austro-Hungarian and Swiss railroads available, transport would be inexpensive. They hastily drafted contracts in summer 1915, and much of the harvest travelled to Berlin, the industrial cities and mines of the Ruhr, and the men in France and Poland. Increasing exports to Austria-Hungary proved tricker. Disputed Tyrol and Trentino kept relations frosty while Austria, traditionally sourcing grain from Hungary, had little need of Italian products. Nonetheless, the use of Austrian rail lines to connect with Germany deepened relations between the two.

    Increased trade with the Entente wasn't an option. Nearly losing a year's coal had soured relations with Britain: increased trade would, to quote one parliamentarian, "be like taking silver to betray, not Our Lord, but our honour." (2) While the relationship was far more vital for Italy than Britain, the country had long been the main source of olive oil and certain vegetables, as well as a limited supplier of grain and wine. Britons viewed the loss of Italian imports as a snub, with hawks claiming Italy was abusing its neutrality. This extended to the rest of the Entente: trade with Russia dropped as its weaknesses became exposed, as, to a lesser extent, did trade with France.

    That left Europe's few neutrals: the Iberian states, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and the Dutch. As primarily agricultural states with even weaker economies, neither Spain nor Portugal had much to offer Italy. Switzerland had done its best to maintain prewar trade via French ports while maintaining relations with the Central Powers. As another neutral, Italy offered a politically safe conduit to the outside world, and Italian use of Swiss railways gave Zurich leverage. Yet there was nothing the Swiss needed from Italy that they couldn't get elsewhere; the same held true in reverse. While maintaining cordial relations with all, the Swiss always worked to their own advantage, never going out of their way for another nation. Norway and the Netherlands, both nearly self-sufficient in food and with good access to international markets, had no need of Italian exports.

    Sweden was different. It controlled some of the world's largest iron ore deposits, essential to production. It sympathised with Germany out of a common heritage and fear of Russia, yet the need to maintain exports kept it neutral. Entente nations received Swedish iron ore via Norwegian ports; the Central Powers received it on the Baltic coast. Immense demand limited the economic damage to Sweden, yet it also kept prices high. Sweden, however, was not fully self-sufficient in food, and its imports had fallen since the war. (3) Both had commodities the other needed, German rail and ports offered an easy connection, and as both were neutral, political problems were hard to foresee. Salandra thought in terms of state-sponsored contracts, not a state-to-state agreement like he'd given Germany. A team of Italian businessmen and economists spent two weeks in Stockholm in July 1915, returning with several papers on how best to operate in the Swedish market. Italy's international food companies (4), taking the hint from Rome, began signing contracts with Sweden. This would ideally stimulate the Italian agricultural sector while providing the government with additional foreign-currency reserves (and hopefully securing their supply of iron ore). The first ten freighters of linguini, privately owned (5), sailed from Naples on 1 September.

    Disaster was about to strike.

    Great Britain had blockaded Germany upon the outbreak of hostilities. However, to have directly shut down the coastline would have required destroying the High Seas Fleet. The Admiralty had no stomach for such a gamble, instead settling on a "distant" blockade: minefields and warships closed off the English Channel and a line from Scotland to Norway. Not even foodstuffs were permitted through, and trade with neutrals was heavily scrutinised. The blockade, which lasted until the war's closing days, weakened the Central Powers yet drew much ire. Noncombatants, especially the United States maintained their right to trade with Central Europe, and pointed out that the blockade defied international law. Britain, accustomed to "ruling the waves", claimed that its wartime actions were its own choice. Italy's improvement of relations with Germany offended Britain because it weakened the blockade. Italy's new contracts in Sweden met with scepticism in Britain: if they allowed Italian goods through the blockade, ostensibly to Swedish ports, what would stop the re-export of the goods to Germany? (6)

    Determined to prove their strength, Britain's naval leaders quickly agreed not to let Italian ships through the blockade.

    The ten merchantmen approached in formation, a hundred yards between them, at a lazy ten knots. They remained, for the moment, in international waters, but the British coastline was visible on the horizon's edge. The Celtic Sea lurched gently beneath an unusually blue sky, so radio communication with the Royal Navy would be clear. Conditions were perfect, but every sailor was on edge. Half an hour passed in the sun.

    "Do you think the inglesi will let us through?" A longtime Regia Marina veteran, the captain had been under fire before, yet he was still worried. Against the Turks three years ago, he had guns, armour, and all of Italy backing him up- and besides, the Ottoman Navy wasn't worth mentioning. Now, he had a thin metal hull weighed down with linguini which couldn't hope to exceed twenty knots, and what felt like every inglesi ship in the world in gun range. But that was what they paid him for.

    "I think so", the XO replied. Blockade-running was a novelty to him too. "If we were travelling to Germany, it might be one thing. But we are merely one neutral going to another. Where is the harm there?" They'd had this conversation a dozen times since leaving Naples. Running it over soothed frayed nerves. "And besides, international law..."

    The blaring radio cut the XO off. "Signore capitano", the PA announced, "come to the bridge quickly, per favore." Like a lot of merchantmen, they used the Navy term. The Captain waddled into the cramped control room and grabbed the radio. His English wasn't good enough for his secondary-school teacher; would it suffice for a Royal Navy officer? One way to find out, he thought, grabbing the radio.

    "Signore captain speaking, of His Majesty Vittorio Emmanuelle's MV Garibaldi at, eh, come si dice, at your service." The radio cracked to life a second later.

    "HMS Acorn. Please be advised that you are currently entering the territorial waters of the United Kingdom and the wartime zone of blockade. Kindly state your destination and cargo." The Captain ran through it in horrible English.

    "Linguini, eh?", the Royal Navy muttered under his breath. He said something Cockney the Captain was glad not to understand. "I must regret to inform you that, under the terms of the Royal Navy blockade directives, publicised internationally upon the outbreak of hostilities, foodstuffs are considered illegal contraband of war, not to pass through." The Captain's eyebrows raised.

    "Signore, perhaps you did misunderstand me." Not the first time his English had let him down. "Our destination, it is not, eh, Germania but, come si dice, Stockholm. We are neutrals trading fairly with one another. Nothing to do with Germania."

    The awkward pause told the Captain something was amiss. "I am under orders, sir, not to let you through. For... political reasons, it is feared that these shipments might... end up in the wrong hands in spite of our blockade policy. Not my decision, you understand- orders from above. I'm afraid I have no choice but to convey the policy of my Government: you are to turn around and return to Naples. In the event you require refuelling, you may do so at Plymouth."

    "Now you give us coal, eh, inglesi!" The Captain paused for a moment. These were British territorial waters after all; British law superseded international. If they disobeyed, the Royal Navy could blow them out of the water and charge them with intrusion. Yet... "They think they rule the damn world. Where is the justice in that, eh?"

    "What would you have us do, signore?" The Captain hadn't noticed the XO at his shoulder. "They have the guns and the right of law." As if those two weren't the same. "What choice have we but to turn back?"

    "If we do that", the Captain snarled, "the trade deal is off, the bosses lose the money, and we go on the damn street. You want that?" The shamefaced XO hung his head. "And besides", he continued in a gentler tone, "what sort of world is it where Italia may not sail as she pleases? If we go back, are we not admitting that il buon Dio has given them an unlimited right to say who may do what?" He stuck his chin out. "If Garibaldi could go ahead against the damned austriachi, we can go ahead here." Had he really just said that? Pride was a crazy thing. But all of Italy would see them in the right if Britain shot, and if worst came to worst, he was in the state of grace. "Steady hand on the controls. Reduce speed to five knots. Signal to those behind us." Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum...

    "I repeat, turn back immediately!" The Royal Navy destroyer was barely a hundred yards distant. Anger filled the British voice- who were these foreigners to defy the greatest power the world had ever known? He is about to find out, the Captain thought, one way or another. "Repeated failure to comply will lead to the proportionate use of force. If you think we are bluffing or act without the confidence of our Government, sir, I invite you to try us." The guns on the Royal Navy destroyer suddenly seemed very large.

    "Turn back now, signore!" The XO was white as a sheet. "You want to be a hero, fine. But I want to live!" Had he a pistol, would he have plugged the Captain? This was what drove men to madness, the Captain thought, knowing your fate was about to be decided and you could do nothing about it. Seconds stretched into hours. Every beat might be his last before the inglesi opened fire. When would British honour override reason? And if men aboard the ship died because he didn't turn back, would that be on his soul? Benedicta tu in muilieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus....

    "This constitutes your final warning." The Briton seemed quiveringly eager to attack, an executioner waiting to get the job done. Why me? What was he doing out here, sacrificing himself for what? For honour? For Italy? For the company? Tacitus had said it was sweet and honourable to die for one's country but, damnit, he wanted to live. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus...

    "You leave me with no choice." The Captain watched in horror as HMS Acorn's guns tilted towards him. It was too much. His heart exploded in pain and his vision blurred. The Captain fell to the floor, gasping for breath, as the XO frantically tried to maneouvre the ship. Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae... The last thing he heard was an earsplitting roar followed a second later by an explosion.


    The Captain never heard the XO's curses.

    1. We have a Russian general with a German name (Rennenkampf), a British commander named French, a German general named François, and a French PM with an Italian surname. What a world.
    2. Which would be a lesser evil if you stop and think about it.
    3. According to my limited research- corrections welcome.
    4. As I understand it, agriculture in Italy in this time period remained, as it always had, pretty local and decentralised-- what was produced in one area was typically consumed there, and American-style food corporations were rarer. Correct me if I'm wrong though.
    5. Trying to figure out a company to fill the role was too much work, so they're "privately owned"
    6. This was part of why Germany spared the Netherlands in OTL: they made a great trade conduit. British trade policy towards the Netherlands was, consequently, less than friendly.
    Chapter IV- Moving Towards War

    Moving Towards War

    The convoy ships radioed back within an hour, explaining their plight to the bosses in Naples. No heads rolled: what had happened was bad enough. Having succumbed to a heart attack in the heat of the moment, the Captain received a funeral with honours. Prime Minister Salandra spoke briefly about the "gross insult to our right of passage", enhancing his reputation as a defender of Italy against Perfidious Albion. That, had the convoy obeyed British orders inside its own territorial waters, none of this would have happened, went unsaid.

    Public anger was immense. Perhaps to compensate for an inglorious history, a strong nationalist current ran through Italian society. People blamed Britain for the winter's deprivations; now they were killing Italian sailors to prevent them from exercising their rights of commerce! Sensationalist papers fuelled the flames with shouts of "Murder on the High Seas!" (1) Protests erupted across the country with particular strength in the north. Nationalist politicians denounced Salandra for his "soft" response, rhetorically asking what Garibaldi would have done. Armed police surrounded Britain's embassy in Rome; non-essential personnel went home for safety.

    The Prime Minister was conflicted. A conservative nationalist, his principal concern had always been Italian self-interest. Sacro egoisimo dictated joining whichever side offered the best terms. In a perfect world he would have joined the Entente, striking against the hated Austrians and freeing his kinsmen under Habsburg rule. Yet that would have entailed alignment with the British. Stupidity in London and bellicosity at home left that no longer viable, forcing him to decline an Entente offer of April 1915. (2) Neutrality under the guise of sacro egoisimo, watching and waiting until the war ended, seemed second-best. It would allow him to focus on economic growth and minimise divisions within society. Yet political expediency kept Italy drifting towards the Central Powers; something bound to end in a war he didn't want.

    Salandra met with his cabinet the day after the funeral to discuss options. His highly conservative government seethed with rage. Italian vessels had been attacked unprovoked and an Italian citizen killed. Many demanded a formal note of apology from the British Government and the dismissal of the Royal Navy officer who'd opened fire. Others went further- if Great Britain ignored Italian demands, their embassy in Rome should be closed. However, neutralists urged restraint. The insult to Italy was immense, as was popular anger, but both would fade with time. War, as the great powers had discovered, was no small commitment. "If the pain of losing one man to the British is so immense", quipped Giovanni Giolitti, "what will losing ten thousand do?" Giolitti, a four-time Prime Minister with immense political talent, lent credence to the moderates.

    Salandra's almond eyes lit up. If Giolitti could stop the nation from blundering into war with Germany, then his support- regardless of their long political rivalry- was welcome. Thanking everyone for their time and advice, he adjourned the meeting with platitudes about defending national honour while not committing to a specific course of action.

    Two days later, the Prime Minister's note of protest arrived at the British Embassy. It was, Salandra hoped, a fair compromise: reprimanding Britain without unduly risking war. Yet his Cabinet- and those in London to whom it was circulated- disagreed.

    Dear Sir,
    I hope this note finds you well. My best wishes to His Majesty's Government, and to the British people as they continue sacrifice and struggle on this European Continent. I have every expectation that, as he did when our two peoples once fought in the Crimea six decades past, the British soldier will distinguish himself by his valour and skill. May the course of operations bring about a swift and just peace to restore harmony to this Continent. Yet, on behalf of His Majesty King Vittorio Emmanuelle, the present Government which I have the honour to head in his name, and the entire people of Italy, I must highlight several wartime actions which, while conducted with the best of intentions, have caused some offence to the Italian nation, in the hopes that rectification may come.

    Great Britain, as a sovereign nation, has an unlimited right to do as it pleases with its abundant natural resources, and to undertake commerce in the circumstances of its choosing. Yet it has been the practice of every government since the days of Lord Palmerston to maintain favourable trade relations with the Italian nation, to mutual benefit. The decision of 3 November 1914, outlined in the Coal Regulations Act, to greatly decrease the availability of coal on the open market, deviates strongly from this tradition and has caused harm to both parties. His Majesty and the Government of Italy are disconcerted at the privations inflicted on the Italian people by economic malaise resulting from this decision by the British Government. Consequently, to defend conditions of prosperity at home, we have been forced to decrease our traditional exports of foodstuffs to the United Kingdom and her allies, as outlined in my letter of February 1. The damage to the balance of trade is immense and it is to be hoped that His Majesty's Government will see fit to restoring the proper economic order, so that the Kingdom of Italy may prove of service in assisting in Britain's mighty struggle.

    Second is the matter of international commerce. The Hague and Geneva Conventions, to which both of our Kingdoms are signatory, permit that in times of war blockades may be established and shipping interdicted. (3) Yet both parties to the conflict have exceeded their authority, interfering with the right of the Kingdom of Italy as a sovereign power to conduct trade under its own terms. I speak principally of the recent incident off the coast of Plymouth, when ten ships bearing the Italian flag, their destination a stated neutral city, carrying no military cargo, were prohibited from executing their mission by the Royal Navy, with heavy damage and loss of life aboard one vessel. If we shall judge good from evil by their fruits, this extreme application of British policy appears wrong.

    Consequently I must, on behalf of His Majesty and the Government and people of Italy, make the following requests to ameliorate the honour of the Italian nation and its relations with Great Britain:

    -Repeal of the Coal Regulations Act of 3 November 1914, or insertion into that Act a proviso exempting the Kingdom of Italy.
    -A declaration of intent to allow nonbelligerents their trade rights as sovereign nations, as per the relevant Clauses of the aforementioned Conventions.
    -A public apology for the recent loss of life and damage to property off the coast of Plymouth, and restitution for the same.
    -Dismissal of the officer(s) responsible for said incident.

    In the event that I have not, one month hence, (1 September 1915) received correspondence from the British Government indicating acceptance, I shall be forced to declare Sir Rennell Rodd, Ambassador in Rome, persona non grata, and to reduce the office of his successor from an Ambassador to that of an Envoy.

    My warmest greetings to the leadership and people of Great Britain, whose faithful ally I remain as servant of God, King, and Italy,

    Antonio Salandra
    The British took offence. Salandra himself admitted their coal was theirs to export as they saw fit. Who was he to tell Britain what to do with its resources, or how to modify its laws, especially in time of war? The Captain's death was tragic, yes, but he had failed to follow orders legally given inside British territorial waters (and as the autopsy clearly showed, was not directly killed by British fire anyway). HMS Acorn had obeyed standing orders from the Admiralty; however tragic the results were, they weren't something to condemn a good officer over. Whitehall appreciated Salandra's demand for compensation, but in the context of a belligerent note and poor relations, they refused to pay. Asquith decided to make a point; three days after receiving the letter, he ordered Ambassador Rodd and his staff to return home. He intended this as a moderate response to offensive demands which would be hard to retailate against, aside from downgrading the Italian embassy in London. The two countries might be hostile in the near future, but no one would go to war over a recalled ambassador. (4) Many in the Cabinet and on the streets, however, felt snubbed. Salandra had not intended to expel Ambassador Rodd; he'd hoped that the British would meet his demands so normal relations could resume. Asking the British to undo the decisions which had damaged Italy's economy and caused this rupture was, to Salandra, perfectly reasonable. Threatening to expel the Ambassador was meant to give his request "teeth" and appease his nationalistic government.

    Britain jumping the gun had widened the gulf without gaining Salandra any political strength.

    His moderate plan having failed, Salandra's government turned on him. Many, at the initial meeting two days before he wrote his note of protest, had called for harsh measures against Britain, from economic sanctions to severing diplomatic relations. (Hawks had proposed war) Only support from Giolitti's neutralists had allowed Salandra to respond as he saw fit. On 3 August, the Cabinet assembled once more. When Giolitti declared that "the Prime Minister's gambit, far from having enhanced our image in the world's eye, has reduced it... again", Salandra felt like a specimen under a microscope. These men, the most powerful in Italy, with their networks of patronage and landed estates, were going to rake him over the coals and claim he deserved every minute. Heated discourse became fiery debate and blazing argument, prompting Giolitti to compare it in his memoirs with a boxing tournament, "with every man for himself". Salandra's strength wore out shortly after six PM. He proposed an adjournment and confidence vote tomorrow. Relishing the chance to publicly humiliate their wayward leader, the conservatives heartily agreed. The defeated Prime Minister slouched out of the room last, his eyes moist as he locked the door and went to pray. Tomorrow would be bloody, he told himself, but he would survive it.

    Little did he know how things would change by morning.

    While not directly involved in the civilian game of politics, General Luigi Cadorna had always remained in the loop. If he was to execute national policy on the battlefield, he had to know the whims and alliances of his political leaders. His sympathy with the Central Powers had led him to press for war in summer 1914, and he'd even made preparations to cross the French border before being recalled. Like all Italian patriots, Britain's recent actions offended him and he hoped to win glory for himself (and the nation as well, he supposed) through war. The Chief of Staff wasn't a Cabinet position and thus he was reliant on Defence Minister Vittorio Zupelli for information. Zupelli had harshly criticised Salandra's "spinelessness" and said far stronger things in private. Both men agreed on the need for increased readiness and an assertive foreign policy. Neither had much use for civilians or, since the cold winter of 1914-15, Great Britain. If any man could get Cadorna's views better aired in the Cabinet, it was Zupelli.

    Thus, when Cadorna recieved a late-night invitation to the German Embassy on the third of August, he brought Zupelli with him.

    General Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen gazed out the Embassy window. Rome was, in its own way, beautiful, yet nothing could compare to the soaring mountains and crisp air of his native Bavaria. Still, if all went to plan, he would have mountains aplenty to work in. The clock chimed seven. "Where are they?", he asked the Ambassador.

    Hans von Flotow shrugged. "General Cadorna promised to be here at this hour." Both men shook their heads. "Italiener." Fifteen minutes passed by, which von Dellmensingen spent reviewing the files in his briefcase. Finally, a knock came.

    "Entreten!", the Ambassador barked, and his secretary led two crisp Italians in. They exchanged salutes with von Dellmensingen as the Ambassador quietly took his leave- this was not a civilian matter, he'd been told.

    "Good to see you at last, Herr General." Von Dellmensingen spoke in creaky Italian, a phrasebook discreetly resting on the desk. "And how are things in Rome? My condolences on the recent Entente... actions."

    "Things are serious, though not so bad as you may have heard." Cadorna sipped black coffee despite the late hour. "Our economy has found ways to overcome the loss of British coal- thanks in no small part to your help." Von Dellmensingen smiled, noting the almost-pained expression on Cadorna's face. He cannot enjoy admitting dependence on us. "But now Prime Minister Salandra is about to fall, having failed to protect our interests against the inglesi."

    "The vote of no confidence is scheduled for tomorrow", Zupelli chimed in. "Unlike General Cadorna, I sit upon the Cabinet and am privy to all that goes on, keeping those I trust in the know."

    "I see." In Germany, leaking information from Cabinet meetings was a serious offence- certainly not something to reveal to others, especially not foreigners. Was that really how things worked in this country? "Your government does not object to this?" Just how serious about discipline and security are you? How much will we have to hold your hand for?

    "Eh. I am the Defence Minister. If I wish to speak with my fellow soldiers off the record, no harm is done. Besides, in my country, it is the civilians who make policy. Us soldati simply carry it out. If General Cadorna and I had had my way, we would have thrown in against the Entente in the first week of the war. But they told us we were not ready, and so we had to stay neutral." Zupelli grimaced. "Not as if they have given us a single extra lira to get ready since, mind."

    "This is not how it is in my country. We have prepared for this fight for thirty years, and my superiors on the General Staff have had much say in shaping wartime policy. There is less... foolishness in the way of getting things done." Cadorna and Zupelli's silent stares asked the obvious question. "And without that system, gentlemen, we would never have driven the French back, or ejected the Russians from Poland. And it is thanks to this national way of war that we will win!" His broad shoulders and arched eyebrows left no doubt that yes, Germany would triumph, and that it would all be thanks to General Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen. "Now then. You say you are ill-prepared to fight the Entente. What I want to know is: what are you missing?"

    Zupelli and Cadorna exchanged glances. "Are you asking us to join your war? I would personally be in favour of such a thing", Cadorna said, "but it is not my place to decide. After Salandra falls tomorrow, his successor must make that decision. And if it is a neutralist like Giolitti, I doubt we will achieve anything."

    Von Dellmensingen smiled. "Perhaps this will convince your new Prime Minister, whoever he turns out to be." He handed a number of papers to Zupelli. "Take these to the first meeting of your new Cabinet. You may read the full details yourself, but our diplomatic corps has... worked miracles." Once in a while, the striped-pants civilians could make the job easier. And from what he'd heard, getting these concessions out of Vienna had been like pulling teeth. "The good Emperor Franz Joseph has, out of a desire for wartime unity, offered to hold plebiscites in Trentino and Zadar after the war, on the understanding that Italy will honour its commitments to the Triple Alliance. We would also be partial to Italian annexation of Nice, historic Savoy, and Tunisia from France, concessions from Britain, control of Valona and a protectorate over Albania, possibly with enlarged frontiers" Eyes widened in contemplation of wealth.

    "That could solve the political question", Zupelli whispered. "But so much depends on the victor in tomorrow's vote. If we get another nationalist of the Right, he will surely fall for this. If, on the other hand, a neutralist, then..."

    Cadorna cut him off. "Then that neutralist will be remembered as the man who cost us Italia irredenta!". He took victory in the plebiscites for granted. "Whatever we have to do, we will make sure this gets into the right hands."

    "Ganz gut. Now, let us say your new political leadership sees things our way. How ready are you to make war and how can Germany assist?"

    "Well", Zupelli began slowly, "I speak strictly off the record, understand?" Von Dellmengsen nodded. "We lack the degree of organisation found in the German Army. Our bersaglieri are superb but few in number. The average man- a peasant, probably from the south- is scarcely more advanced than in Napoleon's day. Much of the equipment expended against the Turks has yet to be replaced. But we have men in abundance."

    "And damn fine officers too!" Cadorna raised a finger, red beneath his snow-white moustache. "I trained those men myself. Our Army is mine per the constitution- not His Majesty's, and certainly not Antonio cazzone Salandra's! I guarantee you that no matter what illiterate fools they may be saddled with, or what equpiment they have to work with, my officers will achieve results. Any who fail will spend the rest of the war carrying wheat on their backs." His glare dared von Dellmensingen to defy him.

    "I understand. Fine leaders working with questionable material. You are far from the only ones. Our Entente enemies"- he lowered his voice- "and even our Austrian and Turkish allies all have the same trouble to varying degrees." But not us! All those years of pouring money into the military, keeping the reserves active for years and technology up to date, were paying off. Hence why his country was the senior partner. "Well, we are pressed for manpower ourselves, but I doubt you will require assistance to hold the Alpine front."

    "Not just hold it", Cadorna said, "but advance across. First Nice, then Grenoble!"

    "I admire your spirit." You fool. If you can defend the front easily so can the French! "Now as you well know, prewar plans called for Italian forces to operate on the River Rhine, tying down enemy forces on the southern extremity of the Western Front. Our successes have naturally moved this line west, but the principle is unchanged. How capable are you of executing this?"

    "In 1914 I would have agreed", Cadorna said slowly. "But there would be more practical considerations now. Would, for example, the German Army assume responsibility for supplying an expeditionary force? Given the damage done to our coal reserves by the inglesi, and our commitments nearer our borders, I say it is better for us to concentrate on the Alpine border." Playing your cards close to your chest, von Dellmingsen thought. But Cadorna had a point. And Germany was holding the Western Front fine on its own. Throwing Italians into the stalemate would do little; forcing France to send forces south might.

    "The Alpine front it will be, then. I will be in touch with General von Falkenhayn in Berlin for more official negotiations, but unofficially, this is going ahead. We can furnish you with experts in mountain warfare"- he smelled a promotion- "and helpful equipment and training to enhance your fine officer corps."

    "If this goes well, victory is ours!" Cadorna gazed off into the distance, as if Nice, Grenoble, and Paris lay just outside the window. "We will have irredenta at last without that fool Salandra!"

    "I will take this"- Zupelli tapped the documents- "to the meeting of the new Cabinet. I doubt Salandra's successor, whomever he may be, will replace me." The three men stood up and exchanged salutes. Cadorna was already halfway down the hall when Zupelli turned back. "Herr General , a question if I may." Von Dellmingsen nodded. "You asked to speak with us just today, but before news broke of tomorrow's no-confidence vote. Did you know, somehow, that the government would fall and a new man would arise? For how long have you waited to share this with us?"

    Von Dellmingsen shrugged his big shoulders. "You think like a strategist, Defence Minister." His grin was almost predatory. "Good night."

    1. Not accurate-- more like "Heart Attack In British Territorial Waters!" but one sells better than the other.
    2. From OTL but ignored because of The Coal Thing.
    3. Guessing this is somewhere in there. Don't want to peruse the entire text.
    4. Though recalling ambassadors is a symptom of conditions which easily lead to war, it's seldom a cause of war itself.
    Chapter V- A Change In Government
  • Chapter V

    A Change In Government

    Antonio Salandra awoke early on the fourth of August 1915, dressed, and took his first smoke of the day. His nerves wouldn't stomach coffee, much less food. Every step felt like that of a condemned man towards the gallows. There was nothing for it, he told himself. No government lasted forever; seldom was the collapse of a government fatal to one's career. Servants moved his property out of the Prime Minister's residence as his wife decamped for their country estate. There they would remain throughout the war, enjoying exile as Salandra planned a return to power.

    First, however, he had to be in at the death.

    Speaker after speaker arose to criticise the Government. Most belonged to the Liberal Union, a fusion of liberal and conservative parties which had politically dominated for two years. They didn't claim the Liberal Union ought not to govern- that would have imperilled their own positions- but rather that Salandra was not the man for the job. Antonino Castello, who bore a grudge for being removed as Foreign Minister in November 1914, savaged Salandra's foreign policy, calling him a "sell-out to the inghlesi" and accusing him of betraying the Triple Alliance. Defence Minister Zapelli reasoned that nothing he did could save the Salandra government, so best to ingratiate himself with the successor. He castigated the Prime Minister's neglect of the military and "inability- or is it lack of desire?- to defend our honour". General Cadorna made a speech on similar lines. Even Giovanni Giliotti, who had tried to protect Salandra at the previous day's Cabinet meeting, questioned his ability to foster national unity.

    Backed into a corner, it was all the Prime Minister could do to behave honourably.

    Salandra defended his conduct before Parliament and the King, stating his honest belief that neutrality was best for Italy. He claimed that had Britain not "infringed out honour" he would have tried to deepen his partnership with them, but did not shy from blaming them for the country's economic woes. Had he his way, Italy would have sided with "whichever powers proved most willing to back our sacro egoisimo", or remained neutral if neither suited him. British stupidity and the impatience of the Italian right wing, not his own failings, were responsible for the Government's failings. "Look to self-interest in London, not any policy of my Government, as the source of our ills. My record has been one of placation, attempted compromise, and reason in time of war and unruly passion. Consider that for all our ills, the Italian soldier remains at peace because of deliberate policies of this Government..." It was a fair speech, and after the horrors of war and disappointments of peace many realised Salandra hadn't been incompetent; merely trying to do what was moral against overwhelming odds and uncooperative actors. Modern historians have rehabilitated the man (for an excellent analysis of his tenure, see A Precarious Neutrality: The Impossible Prime Ministership of Antonio Salandra, published by the University of Rome, 1994). Yet none of that did any good on the day of.

    By a two-thirds majority, Parliament and the Chamber of Deputies voted no confidence in the present government.

    The speeches and vote itself had taken most of the day, and Parliament adjourned at five PM. Those unsullied by their leader's fall went out to celebrate. While some ate and drank, the fallen Salandra returned home. He sat in the half-empty Prime Minister's residence, all the Classical statues and Baroque paintings en route to his estate, the lights and heat turned off to save money, and put his head in his hands. Everything he had done in his tenure had been for Italy- and now he knew what the people thought of him. Whoever they elected would be a demagogue, he would take Italy into a war which didn't suit its interests, and the people would suffer as a result. Perhaps then they would regret voting out Prime Minister Antonio Salandra, whose only crime was to have reacted to provocation with reason rather than passion. But whatever else came, he would play no part in it. Salandra remained in Rome long enough to get his successor's government up and running before decamping to his country estate; after the war, when his expected political renaissance failed to come, he emigrated to the United States. After ten years of teaching law and economics at Yale, he died in 1931. His epitaph came from Scipio Africanus, "Ingrata patria, ne ossa quidem habebis." (1)

    The business now began of forming a new government. No one doubted that the Liberal Union would lead; the question was which individual had the confidence of his peers. That man's clique would form the centre of power. The fifth of August passed in deliberation and argument as King Vittorio Emmanuel considered the prospects. Shortly before seven PM, a confidential letter was sent from the Quirinal Palace to Sidney Sonnino's townhouse in Rome. His Majesty wished to see the two-time Prime Minister within the hour.

    Born on the eve of the Revolutions of 1848, Sonnino was an "elder statesman" of Italian politics. More of an administrator than a politician- he had served as Finance Minister thirty years ago and Foreign Minister under Salandra- he enjoyed much respect as one who got things done and as a staunch defender of the liberal monarchy. He respected Salandra's conservative instincts, yet had pushed for a more assertive foreign policy. When war began, Sonnino had favoured neither side, yet British actions now inclined him towards the Central Powers, or at least towards a "militant neutrality." Besides, he knew how to ride the Anglophobic crest in Parliament. Sonnino submitted to the Monarch's request to form a Government. King Vittorio Emmanuel postponed Parliament twenty-four hours to give the new man time to act.

    Politically adept and moderately conservative, Sonnino's abrasiveness made him hard to work with. His government picks suggested continuity with Salandra and a desire to minimise friction with other, strong-willed men. He claimed Finance and Foreign Affairs for himself and kept Vittorio Zupelli as Defence Minister. Sinecures filled the other positions; men who could handle paperwork and manage subordinates well enough but who would never challenge the Prime Minister. Reviewing the Cabinet picks, the King is said to have remarked, "perhaps I ought to surrender my crown now; Sonnino's word will shortly be law!" Giovanni Giliotti was furious at being excluded from the new machine, and rumour spread of a schism within the Liberal Union. The more astute observers soon realised Sonnino had little agenda beyond being the conservative Salandra ought to have been. Yet with Royal Assent and something resembling parliamentary confidence, Sidney Sonnino returned to the Prime Ministership on 6 August 1915.

    Though the war and collapse of the Liberal Union would ruin his reputation, in August 1915 Sonnino was genuinely popular. People had hoped Salandra would be a beacon of conservatism; he ended up an ineffective leader and scapegoat for national ills. Sonnino had won the confidence of Italy not by repudiating Salandra's ideas but promising to build on them. The old man had good ideas but could not enact them; I can. He reportedly wrote to his predecessor shortly after taking office, asking if he wanted a government post or increased pension; pride kept Salandra from answering. Having had two short-lived governments before, Sonnino was determined to make this one work. Defending national honour and maritime rights (though he didn't specifically mention Britain) growing the economy, protecting the liberal system from "radicalism of all stripes and all positions"- whatever earned him cheers went. Control of finance and foreign policy gave him the heaviest hand Italian politics had seen for years. Giliotti and his ilk remained on the back benches, heckling but not threatening. Everything was going according to plan.

    Then as crisp September dawned, the Defence Minister and Chief of the General Staff invited him to the German embassy. An hour later he staggered out, face white as a sheet, clutching a confidential folder.

    The Cabinet convened at dawn the next day, ostensibly to hear a budgetary report from the General Staff. Only Cadorna, Zupelli, and Sonnino knew their true purpose. Secrecy and short notice kept nosy reporters ignorant. Political pressure had forced Salandra to choose between country and career; Sonnino wasn't about to make the same mistake. Defying policy, the Prime Minister ordered that no potentially incriminating minutes be kept, leaving historians with only journal entries and postwar interviews to reconstruct the scene. Not even servants were allowed; they tabled all discussion while coffee was poured.

    Sonnino was about to decide the future of Italy and the trajectory of the Great War. Absolute secrecy was the least he could have asked for.

    He tossed the packet on the table and collapsed into the leather armchair, heart racing, and took a soothing sip of espresso. Nine wide-eyed men, only a few of whom truly mattered, stared back. Their aristocratic beards and commanding uniforms only made their faces seem paler. It was said, at any rate, and he knew a certain idle pride at delivering the news himself rather than delegating it to Cadorna or Zupelli. Doubtful they will turn on me. Good Cabinet members didn't argue. And if they do, I will bring them down, burn the documents. They'll never prove anything. The right words eluded everyone. Another fifteen seconds passed.

    "This, it must go without saying, enjoys the full confidence of Germany's General Staff. Both the Ambassador and General von Dellmensingen confirmed this to me." (2) Luigi Cadorna sat at Sonnino's right, Defence Minister Zupelli on his left. The rest of the Cabinet was sprawled down a thirty-foot oak conference table. "Reliable members of our own General Staff have also reviewed the report and found it satisfactory. Naturally, had either party found any deficiency, this would never have reached yourselves." What Cadorna hadn't told the Cabinet, Sonnino knew too well, was that von Dellmensingen's strategy didn't align with Italy's existing war plans for France. But one thing at a time.

    "We cannot wait forever, gentlemen. All the components of victory are in place now, and a strike will bring success. Yet in six months, or a year, the war may be over and our chance will have vanished." And beating the war-drum will no longer be politically valuable. Mustn't tell the reporters that one. "Shall we say we sat on our hands when, as our German allies have made so clear, the chances of victory have never been higher?" The Prime Minister frowned. "Shall we give our enemies another excuse to call us cowards?"

    The Education Minister, small both in stature and spirit, rose and grabbed one of the maps from Cadorna's packet and pointed to France. "See how far these lines have moved in a year? See how much glory the French have won so far? And at what cost?" He spread his hands. "How many French and Germans have been wasted because their imbecile governments cannot make peace? Should we join them and, like Lucretia, commit suicide for honour's sake" Education took a deep breath. "For all the damage to our economy, we prosper because of our neutrality. Letting Germany convince us to throw that away for "honour", sir, would be a decision beneath this Government."

    Who gave you a voice at this table? Presence didn't equal power, and no junior minister had the right to speak so frankly. "Would you have said the same to Garibaldi sixty years ago? Would you have told him our honour is not worth it? The austriaci are finally seeing reason; we have an assurance of Trentino and all of Zadar once we win, as well as Nice and Savoy- ancestral land of His Majesty!- once we win." Sonnino leaned over the table at the Education Minister. "Or do you not think Italia irredenta is worth it?" If the man said no, he was gone. But the Education Minister nodded slowly.

    "What about our energy needs?" The Minister of Industry waved his own documents. "I do not dispute your moral, political point, Signore, but I do fear shortfalls. Honour is a beautiful thing, but it cannot power an economy. And I fear war may push us over the edge." Sonnino grimaced- the man could clearly prove his point- and nodded. "Well, Signore", Industry continued, "the year before the war we imported 10.6 million tonnes of coal and produced a mere 600,000 tonnes ourselves, consuming all of this. The outbreak of war distorted figures for 1914, but in the first three quarters of this year we imported nine million tonnes, half of which came via special arrangement with Germany. Domestic production remained minor. Without support from the Germans..." Industry took a sip of fortified coffee, bracing himself. "Without support from the Germans, total economic collapse on an unseen scale would have occurred following the suspension of British coal."

    All the prosperous careerists around the table cringed. Being reminded that failure was real and their grand plans could crash around their ears was sobering. The worst part, Sonnino knew, was that Industry was right. Years of economic experience had shown him the country's weaknesses, and like everyone he'd seen coal rise with his own eyes. "Are you saying we cannot sustain our economy if we transition to war?" But how have we managed without the inghlesi for the better part of a year?

    "Not precisely, Signore. What I am saying is that German aid was a deliverance, a deus ex machina. We cannot count on such miracles very often. Now as per the agreement, Germany will send another three million tonnes of coal throughout this year, which will sustain us well into 1916. But once the agreement ends, we will still be in the same position unless Germany renews it. Even if we declare war tomorrow and achieve victory by Christmas"- Cadorna thrust out his chin- "we will still face dire shortfalls in the coming year." He paused. "I am an economist, Prime Minister, not a diplomat. Yet it seems painfully clear that, dependent on two producers of coal, it would behoove us to maintain relations with both. We cannot rely on Germany the same way we did Britain, and..."

    "Understood. I thank you for your analysis, but you are correct- you are not a diplomat." Sonnino sighed, trying to think like a German. He knew rerouting coal from the home front to Italy came at a high cost. But would Berlin be willing to extend the treaty another year, if it meant getting a second front against the French? Nothing von Dellmensingen had said suggested otherwise, but what did one liaison officer know about economic policy? "Suppose we can procure a similar agreement from Germany. What could we accomplish given another 7.5 million tonnes a year from them?"

    "Peacetime operations would be feasible, but war would be another matter. The belligerents have converted their whole economies to war footings and still have problems. Our stockpiles will sustain us for a time, but..." Zupetti and Cadorna glared daggers at the nervous Minister. "...but they were designed for a briefer conflict. Expanding the Army, training conscripts, replacing expended munitions, maneouvering the Regia Marina will all add up. And speaking as an economist- not a diplomat or an officer- I cannot see how to make it work. I hope the General Staff and our diplomatic corps can prove me wrong" He spread his hands and sat back down. (3)

    Zupetti and Cadorna looked ready to strangle the Minister for Industry. His look declared that, having spoken the truth, his conscience was clean. After a moment's thought, Sonnino stood up. "Gentlemen, I thank you for coming today. Having heard all this, the issues are far clearer." This is why Salandra couldn't join the war, and it destroyed him. For a moment Sonnino pictured himself denounced in Parliament, the Minister for Industry's arguments blown aside. Facts trumped honour. "My conversations with German officials suggest that we can extend our economic agreement", he said slowly. "I will attempt to get a formal agreement via our Berlin embassy. If we can obtain another 7.5 million tonnes for the coming year-"

    "Ten." Industry shook his head. "Ten at minimum for war, though twelve and a half would be better. And I doubt we will get a bargain price."

    "Fine. Whatever we need to pay, we will. If we can get all this, it buys us a year to win the war, after which, our political objectives achieved, we can determine a sustainable path for coal supply." Industry reluctantly nodded. "General Cadorna, if given full writ to prosecute hostilities, can we win by the end of 1916?"

    "Absolutely." No hint of worry in Cadorna's voice- but then, there wouldn't be. "As I told our German allies and the Defence Minister, our officer corps is superb. Men and equipment are adequate. Given French weakness and sufficient resources, victory is assured." His scowl dared any mere civilian to defy him. Defence Minister Zupetti wordlessly confirmed with a nod. "We do not deny the science of economics, but rather insist on the supremacy of strength and courage. Enough of that will let us win, regardless of what comes next." (4)

    Sonnino nodded. "If we can secure coal supplies from Germany for 1916, and if our Armed Forces can bring victory within months, as General Cadorna claims,"- and as everyone claimed a year ago, he thought, "then this war will be winnable. Italy will avenge the insults to her honour and secure our countrymen beyond the frontiers." He stared around the table. Ten men, one of whom wasn't even on the Cabinet, another of whom held three offices, were about to cast their nation into the furnace. The road would be long and bloody, forcing another of Europe's peoples from peace to war. It would throw the national economy into turmoil. No one wanted to contemplate how calamitous defeat would be. Am I in the right? Not just in my calculations, but morally? Imperceptibly, Sonnino shook his head. Having reached a decision, he couldn't question it even in his own heart. Twenty-five years of politics had made that very clear. He rose.

    "It is settled, then. I will establish diplomatic overtures to Vienna and Berlin, communicating our interest in joining. If the negotiations go well, we will have war. If not, we shall send General von Dellmensingen home, I shall burn this packet, and we shall say no more about it." That is reasonable... surely?

    Having decided for war, the Sonnino Government now had to lay the groundwork. Italy in autumn 1915 was neither militarily nor politically ready for war. (5) Economic arrangements had to be made with Germany and concessions from the Habsburgs finalised. Italy's economy could not function without the first and it would lack the political will for war without the second. Meanwhile, General Cadorna had to modify pre-existing war plans, devise a united strategy with Germany and Austria-Hungary, and begin mobilisation. All this had to occur without arousing Entente suspicion and prompting a pre-emptive strike.

    The Habsburgs were understandably hesitant to cede territory to Italy. Ethnic divisions were a major problem, and acknowledging that the Italians under their flag had a right to unite with Rome would set precedent. If it could happen in Trentino, why not Transylvania? Pride was another factor- Emperor Franz Joseph had been in his thirties when the Italian state was founded, and now they wanted concessions from him? These issues had impeded negotiations back in January, and few in Vienna had any appetite for revisiting them. With the war going well enough, Italian neutrality was perfectly sufficient.

    Yet Germany saw things differently. Habsburg stature had fallen since the war began and their wishes carried less weight. Having gone to war partially on Austria's behalf and bailed them out in Serbia and Galicia, Germany felt entitled to sacrifice Habsburg interests for "the greater good". Facing another year of Western Front stalemate, Germany would do whatever was needed to open a second front against France. Diplomatic but terse exchanges between Heinrich von Tschirschky, German ambassador to Vienna, and their Foreign Minister Stephan von Rajcez, set the tone. If Austro-Hungarian recalcitrance kept Italy out of the war, Germany would retaliate. Von Tschirschky failed to specify, but von Rajcez knew too well how dependent his nation was.

    Italy, Germany, and the Dual Monarchy agreed to meet at a Swiss country estate belonging to a wealthy German. Sonnino personally led Italy's delegation; Tschirschky, von Rajcez, and German ambassador to Italy Hans von Flotow were all present. This was a diplomatic summit, not a military one; only civilians were present and military matters barely discussed. In his memoirs, von Rajcez described the negotiations as "Germany and Italy uniting, forcing our delegation to agree to a compromise peace." He was not wrong. German diplomats frequently spoke for and went over the heads of their Austro-Hungarian counterparts, demonstrating considerable generosity towards Italy. Germany and Italy wielded Austro-Hungarian agreements "in principle" to cede "certain territories" as rhetorical weapons: they weren't imposing anything new, merely insisting on existing agreements.

    The principal issues had not changed: Italy insisted on ethnic Italian and strategically valuable territories; the Dual Monarchy defended its territorial integrity. Nonetheless, with German backing, Italy made inroads. Sonnino was willing to sacrifice the South Tyrol and city of Bolanzo, and under German pressure decided not to press his claims, something von Rajcez took as an olive branch. Sonnino also coveted a small border strip containing the towns of Tolmino, Gradisca, and Gorizia. These towns were strategically positioned and- though no one dared say it aloud- would enhance defence in any Austro-Italian war. Von Rajcez ceded them only under pressure.

    Despite von Flotow's best efforts, negotiations nearly failed over the question of Trieste. Sonnino had demanded it earlier in the year and been rebuffed. Now, faced with a second refusal, he made a careful gambit, threatening to walk out of negotiations if the port wasn't ceded. He would never have followed through- to return to his cabinet empty-handed would have destroyed his nascent government- but knew Germany would back him if he put his foot down. In exchange for abandoning claims to the rest of the Istria Peninsula, Sonnino was able to pocket Trieste. Austria-Hungary retained free basing and commercial rights in perpetuity. After a debate over whether or not Italy should get the territories immediately or at the war's end, the Germans proposed a compromise. Italy would get provisional control in thirty days, during which anyone who desired to leave could. Citizens of the Dual Monarchy could retain that status, and plebiscites would occur at the war's end. The Austro-Hungarians howled at such mistreatment, but Germany was unrelenting. Both parties walked away imperfectly satisfied, but well aware that it could have been worse. Sonnino sent Cadorna a telegram the night of the signing with three words:

    Alea iacta est.

    (1) Ungrateful fatherland, you shall not even have my bones
    (2) See the previous chapter
    (3) Most of these issues didn't apply in OTL because, as an Entente nation, Italy still had access to British coal.
    (4) In August 1914, this was foolish, yet forgivable. Thirteen months later, it's detached from reality.
    (5) Joining the Entente was easier; the Anglo-French could promise more territory and Britain could bankroll the whole thing.

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    Chapter VI- Planning For The Inevitable
  • Chapter VI

    Planning For The Inevitable

    Following the secret Cabinet meeting where the decision for war was made, Italy had begun mobilisation. Like all European states, Italy's General Staff had pre-existing mobilisation tables designed to organise and simplify the process, yet those caused as many problems as they solved. Some aspects of the plan were over twenty years old, written by politically minded paper-pushers totally neglectful of modern logistical demands, human error, and political pressure. Ordering execution was one thing, but implementing it was another. Things soon fell far behind schedule. Worsening relations with Austria-Hungary in the years before the war had led many to prioritise northeastern defences over northwestern, leaving Cadorna with broken, ageing fortifications and logistics. Immense backlogs developed on the railroads; commandeered civilian vessels overcrowded northern ports. Men arrived at prearranged destinations without supplies or vice versa. Weeks-long delays and lost units were too frequent. Yearly reports by paper-pushing officers had assumed adequate artillery: much of this turned out to be obsolete, rusting in disused warehouses, or missing altogether. There was a particular shortage of mobile mountain howitzers- precisely what would be most important to break through the French lines. Manpower proved another problem. Both greying reservists and fresh-faced eighteen-year-olds needed considerable training, but there was a lack of camps, instructors, and modern equipment. In the absence of proper training, these men had to learn by experience; something which would kill many. (1)

    Cadorna's predecessor Enrico Cosenz had constructed the first contingency for war with France twenty-one years ago. Cosenz's main principle was that the Italian Alps were impenetrable and Italian forces should engage France in secondary theatres. He too called for an expeditionary force to France (something the Germans ceaselessly reminded Cadorna of), but also advocated an amphibious seizure of Corsica and vigilance against enemy landings near Rome. Cadorna had written of the need to adhere to these plans, and had spent the mobilisation period updating them.

    However, the problems encountered dictated change. The equipment and rail issues in moving armies north made Cadorna doubt his ability to send an expeditionary force afield. Italian soil, with ready stockpiles hours away, everyone speaking and reading the same language, and no political issues with foreign governments, made for optimal conditions. How would units function in the French mud, having to coordinate with German officers and ship things hundreds of miles away across foreign rail? Veterans of the 1912 war recalled the challenges of supply and command in the Libyan desert with horror. Would this not be more of the same? From a political perspective, even if a united Italian Expeditionary Force fought as a whole, Germany would always be in true command. Italy's Constitution made the Chief of Staff supreme commander of the military, a title Cadorna treasured. Pride forbade him from letting German officers push his men about.

    When Cadorna communicated these concerns to Berlin via von Dellmensingen, the reaction was furious. He quickly discovered the dark side to German generosity: Berlin expected Italy to cooperate in its own vision for war. Cadorna insisted that since Italy was a sovereign nation and equal partner, these choices were his to make. Berlin replied that if Italy did not send an expeditionary force, as a sovereign nation and equal partner it would cancel the deployment of mountain units to the Alps. Arguing wasted valuable time and left a trail for Entente intelligence. Compromise was eventually had: Cadorna established a paper command for an Italian Expeditionary Force (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano, CSI) under General Armando Diaz. As per General Cosenz's 1894 plan, five corps and two 'independent' divisions (mostly from the First Army) were earmarked for the role, though excuses about poor weather and crowded logistics let Cadorna delay deployment until spring 1916.

    Though imperfectly satisfied, Berlin relented. Attacking the Alps was surely hopeless, but at least it would tie down the French- and they had what they considered a guarantee of Italian support. Still, Cadorna had tarnished his reputation with Germany's General Staff. Problems mounted all around, but Cadorna could only go forward.

    Cadorna travelled to Turin a week before the war began to assume command of his new headquarters. Having replaced those he deemed incompetent with fresh junior officers and veterans of 1912, he enjoyed the comfort of skilled subordinates. In the course of four weeks, he reminded them, they had worked miracles. They had updated their war plans, deployedAll this was thanks to their effort and skill. The coming war would not be easy, he told them, "but we are to remember the tasks of our forefathers, and to remind ourselves that we fight in their name, to finish what they began!" Rousing cheers filled the General Staff auditorium, reminding Cadorna that victory was inevitable.

    While the CSI assembled at Turin, the rest of Italy's army streamed to the French frontier. Prewar plans had called for a passive strategy, letting geography keep France out. Cadorna's deep knowledge of the Alps and the need to prioritise the CSI's logistic needs confirmed the need for defence, but he rejected passivity. Italy needed to prove itself as a Great Power and actively contribute to the war, something cowering in mountain bunkers wouldn't do. A fragment of the army could hold the bulk of the 150-mile front. The rest would launch a short, swift attack against Nice. It lay a scant fifteen miles from the border and the terrain was better than anywhere else on the front. Historic Savoyard claims to the city made it a politically feasible objective. Taking it would deprive France of one of her Mediterranean bases, making an amphibious assault on Corsica much more feasible. The Fourth Army, supplemented by Italy's famous mountain divisions, and von Dellmensingen's Alpenkorps, was to accomplish the task. Once the word came, Cadorna knew the Italian Army would live up to expectations.

    Preparations were just as furious on the other side of the mountains.

    Italy's slide into the Central Powers had troubled the Entente less than it might appear. MI6 and Duxieme Bureau agents had thoroughly penetrated the country once war began, and knew the scope of its economic problems and the resulting political drama. Once Sonnino replaced Salandra, Entente agents reported back to their respective countries that "hostilities... may be considered likely if not imminent." After the resumption of negotiations with Austro-German diplomats, the French activated their contingency for war with Italy. Like all nations, France maintained a strategic reserve for such emergencies and, even if it could no longer actively reinforce the Western Front, did not have to deprive it of men.

    The realisation that war with Italy was inevitable prompted serious debate. France had updated its contingency plan for war with Italy eleven years prior following a major intelligence leak. Its fundamental assumptions were that Italy would dispatch the bulk of its army to the Western Front, leaving little for domestic defence. Heavily influenced by the prewar cult of the offensive, the plan called for concentrating in the mountain passes to overwhelm the token Italian defenders. That would leave Turin, less than fifty miles away, exposed. With their greatest industrial city gone, Italy would surrender. The whole process was supposed to take three weeks.

    Few had questioned the plan before the war, but in 1915 it seemed ludicrous. The distance from the border to Turin was the same as from Ypres to Ghent, or Loos to Mons. If such progress was unthinkable on the flat ground of northern France, how could it be achieved in Europe's highest peaks? There was also the matter of Italy's expeditionary force. Unaware that Cadorna was dragging his feet, the French assumed a sizeable Italian force would appear on the Western Front in months, if not weeks. Intelligence suggested the blow would fall in Alsace, hitherto a quiet sector. This was no time to deploy the strategic reserve to the peripheries! Many had a different objection, one based on principle rather than analysis. The plan was steeped in antiquated notions of courage conquering all, a doctrine which had killed countless Frenchmen in 1914. Sending the men on a hopeless endeavour as though they still wore red trousers was no way to win.

    Factors incentivising Cadorna to defend applied to France. Only five passes were accessible by vehicles. They were heavily fortified on the French side; it was reasonable to assume the Italians had done likewise. Militarily, letting Italy attack first and weaken itself would waste their supplies and give insights as to how their army operated. Seeing their first attack dashed on the rocks would hopefully make Italy question the war and boost French morale. Best of all, it would require only minimal reinforcements.

    Half a dozen officers approached Joseph Joffre at his chateau in Bas-sur-Arbe, asking him to reconsider. All were highly experienced in both field and staff service, with years of service and distinguished war records. Their General Staff colleagues had selected them for this role hoping that their credentials would endear them to the Chief. War with Italy was inevitable, they said, but calamity was avoidable. The present war plans courted disaster, and they outlined the arguments for strategic defence. A twenty-page essay, annotated with maps and charts and signed by many staff officers, boosted their case and could serve as the nucleus of a new plan.

    Joseph Joffre's long career, much of it spent fighting low-technology engagements against colonial natives, had shaped him. Before the war, he'd repeatedly seen French infantry and cavalry attack and destroy their foes. His preface to Plan XVII, France's failed attempt to recapture Alsace-Lorraine at the outbreak of war, declared his intention to "advance with all forces, united to the attack..." Joffre accurately credited national survival at the Marne (and his subsequent rise to fame) to his counterattacks. All this had taught him a dangerous lesson: pushing the foe hard enough would always yield results. The failure of his spring offensives was, in his mind, due not to strategic error but inept subordinates. Joffre had doubled down, convinced he alone had the answers.

    He listened politely to what the officers had to say, perused through their writing, and sacked them on the spot. The offensive would go forward. French honour demanded nothing less!

    Tension marked the last days of official peace. Cadorna was as ready as he could be, and awaited only the signal from Sonnino. A pre-emptive French strike remained a danger, yet with mobilisation complete he could absorb the blow. Subordinates raised paranoid concerns of Anglo-French landings in Sicily or on Italy's long west coast, yet neither were real possibilities. He would have liked to deploy forces to Albania- protecting Italian interests there under the guise of fighting Serbia- or on North African adventures, yet neither were feasible. He spent the last days of peace in the map room, running over plans for Nice. A hundred miles away in Grenoble, Joffre conferred with General Paul Maistre, chief of staff of the newly recreated Ninth Army. Ten well-trained divisions sat along the frontier, waiting for the signal. Joffre would have liked to attack first but political pressure from Paris forbade it. (2) Once the word came, he was ready.

    Sidney Sonnino announced the agreement with Germany and Austria-Hungary on 1 October 1915. The telegram reached Turin at five PM the same day: combat operations were to begin in twelve hours.

    Italy had joined the Central Powers.

    1. Akin to what happened to the AEF because General Pershing wouldn't listen in OTL
    2. He always abhorred civilian authority over him, but starting a war on his own would be too much.
    Chapter VII- The Die Is Cast
  • Chapter VII

    The Die Is Cast

    Italy declared war on the Triple Entente on 1 October 1915.

    The news surprised all, from the diplomatic staff abroad to the foremen of weapons factories. Many hated the austriaci and inglesi in equal measure and followed war news passionately. Politicians, journalists, and (under pseudonyms) officers had penned articles supporting one side or the other, or had fiercely advocated for neutrality. Some Italian citizens fought in the French Foreign Legion, others with their co-linguists in the Habsburg army. Parish priests offered memorial Masses after news of a big offensive. French, British, and German spies had rubbed shoulders and traded shots in Rome; determined refugees and conscientious objectors tricked their way into safety. Italian shipping was under threat on the high seas; submarines occasionally clashed too close to Italian territorial waters. Yet Italy remained neutral. Overarching though the Great War was, it had never been their war.

    And now it was.

    The scenes greeting the announcement were at once heroic and tragic. As if ignorant of what lay ahead, as though the horrors of the trenches and privation of the home front meant nothing to them, the Italian people celebrated. Students raced from their dormitories with their friends, clad in their Sunday best, to enlist. Families sent them on their way with the best provisions and wine, lovingly wrapped up. Old men, even if they disliked allying with the austriaci, cheered at the idea of revenge on the perfidious British. Red, white, and green bunting appeared as if by magic on every lamppost and windowsill. Impromptu marching bands accompanied hometown heroes to the train stations, playing the national anthem and sprightly marches. Though they had to have known what lay ahead, the Italian people still celebrated. Part of this was release. Ever since Britain cut coal imports last November, the people had suffered without a good cause. Miserly foreigners and weak domestic leaders had caused their misery; not something in which to take pride. Now, worse though the privations would be, they were for a just cause: la patria. Another part was that Italy had been a second-rate power for so long. Many, domestic and abroad, had opposed its protracted unification. Its colonial ventures had brought mixed results. Even the war with Turkey had confirmed its own weaknesses. Sitting out of the Great War had confirmed charges of cowardice and ineptitude. It depended on first Britain, then Germany for its coal. Now, Italy's young men could prove the nation's virility, not just stand up to but overcome the proud French and vaunted British. Just as all the Great Powers had in 1914, the Italian people saw this war as a chance to settle scores and find glory.

    Yet no one had known what lay ahead in 1914. Seeing the war as a grand adventure had been excusable. Now, the Italian people knew the hell that lay ahead. Genuinely believing they could avoid it would have been as hubristic as it was naïve. The only explanation, then, is that in that moment they didn't care. Through hardship to the starts and through the trenches to glory. So the lambs marched to the train station, regimental colours in hand, waiting to be shipped to slaughter.

    The only segment of the population to greet war with dread were the men to lead it: Italy's vaunted officer corps. Bravado aside, these men knew they had their work cut out for them. The political intrigue surrounding the declaration had made secrecy advisable. This had been a political decision made by Sonnino, one which General Cadorna had opposed. If he had had his way, the Chief of Staff would have devised a brand-new war plan in concert with the Germans, yet he hadn't had time. Prewar plans for war with the Entente had assumed Italy would join such a conflict from the beginning, with its enemies at the same low level of readiness. Facing an already-mobilised France would be a far greater challenge.

    Most of their countrymen were asleep at 0500 hours, yet the men of the Italian Army were wide-awake. Hot coffee did what adrenaline and fear couldn't. They had dug these trenches by hand over the past few weeks, carving shelter from hard rock in the hopes of weathering the storm. Honour was beautiful and their work noble, but no one wanted it to happen. Cries for war in the newspapers were so far removed from reality. Flecks of humanity- a family photo against a cot, a Sacred Heart over a dugout, a goat more a pet than a beast of burden- had asserted themselves. The men did as they were told, readying themselves and hoping against hope it wouldn't happen.

    When the word roused the artillerymen from their beds after midnight, they let out a long sigh. Peace and security were things of the past. The first shell to crash into the French lines crushed a million hopes.

    Thousands followed in its wake as stockpiles built up over weeks were fired off into the dawn sun. Over seventeen hundred guns were arrayed along the front from the Mediterranean Sea to the Swiss border; nearly half were along the southernmost twelve miles near Nice. Many came from elite mountain units, their gunners having long trained for this. Mountain heights provided perfect vision and 45-degree angle from such heights enhanced range, even if a lack of long-range guns precluded striking behind the lines. Despite this, there were problems: a desire to avoid diplomatic incidents (or worse, a pre-emptive French strike) had prevented the gunners from training in their new positions. Conscripts with minimal practise panicked and performed poorly under the strain. Having anticipated this, Cadorna dispersed veteran officers to assist. Fire rates and accuracy were imperfect, but the volume of shells fired atoned for it. Few questioned whether expending so much ammunition so early on was wise.

    Word reached General Paul Maistre at 0416 in Grenoble (1). Unsurprised, he bore the news well. "In some ways", he recalled in subsequent memoirs, "the news was a relief; I could not operate with total freedom, politics aside." Hurried telegraph and telephone exchanges with corps and division headquarters confirmed the pounding frontline units were taking. However, early reports, unreliable as they were, suggested the men were well-protected. All the effort put into enhancing fortifications had paid off. What concerned him was the concentration of force near Nice. Its proximity to the front was the reason he was based in Grenoble, and unless the Italians were looking at a different set of maps, striking there was natural. Instinct told him to reinforce it, but orders suggested otherwise. Joffre, who had returned to Paris two days ago, had specifically ordered a counter-attack once the shooting began. Manpower limits had forced Maistre to maintain a large tactical reserve with which to take Turin after three weeks (he found the orders ludicrous as well). Using them to defend the south would de facto cancel the offensive, and Joffre would have his job. Choosing the safe course, Maistre telephoned Joffre forty-five minutes after the shooting began.

    "Contra-attaque avec l'audace- toujours!" Five words summed up the French experience on the Alpine front. Like everyone else, Joffre had forseen this war, and would have shot first had he the authority. Cadorna having given him that authority, he was determined to seize the initiative. Maistre ran through what was being done- a counter-bombardment of known Italian positions and local infantry attacks- while Joffre examined a detailed map. He agreed with Maistre that the Italians were aiming for Nice, yet thought this a good thing. Such a commitment in the south would leave them helpless against the blow he intended to strike further north. The obvious question- what if Nice falls?- was brushed away. Having expected such a move, he'd examined the city's fortifications. "Sultan Mehmed's cannon could not blow past them!" An awkward silence followed his grand declaration. To speak was to be sacked, so Maistre kept silent. Joffre ran over the timetable for launching his counteroffensive and put the receiver down. Two hours had elapsed since the firing began.

    Bombardment continued for a week. Taking cues from his foe's Western Front campaigns, Cadorna sought to erode the frontline defenders. Shelling tapered off after a few days in the north but it persisted in Nice. All the while, Italian soldiers knelt in their mountain dugouts, quickly accustomed to the sound of shellfire. Dread had become excitement for a few days, which had, in turn, become resignment. They would attack when the word came and the French would kill many of them. All that could be done was to go ahead when the time came. They were motivated less by honour or patriotism- abstract things- than knowing that if they crossed the French they might die, but if they crossed their own officers they certainly would. Survival dictated compliance.

    As the days passed, General Maistre's confidence grew against his own expectations. Joffre had been right- the line east of Nice held. Adjacent villages such as Menton and Tende had been reduced to rubble but the military positions remained intact. Casualties were lower than feared (Alpine rock provided formidable cover) while the French guns and headquarters had survived. When the enemy went over the top, the French would be ready, even if the theatre reserve would have made a great difference. Instead, those men were marching to the northern sector, ready to "take Turin in three weeks." The orders were Joffre's, so Maistre's conscience was clean. Survival dictated compliance.

    By the evening of 7 October, General Cadorna was ready. Mountain observers had brought back reports: there was no way any significant formations could have survived in the front line. Men in trenches and bunkers had surely made it through, but not their supplies, pack animals, or communications equipment. Attacking would be a matter of collecting dazed prisoners before marching west. "With the confidence of all Italy", as he recalled years later, Cadorna gave the order to advance. So at dawn the Italians climbed from their dugouts and crossed the Alpine no-man's-land...

    ...straight into a hornet's nest.

    1. Italy and France operated in different time zones according to this map
    Chapter VIII- Menton And Bardonecchia
  • Chapter VIII

    Menton And Bardonecchia

    The First Battle of Menton commenced at dawn on 8 October. Having bombarded the foe for a whole week (wasting valuable shells), General Cadorna was ready. He arose well before dawn, prayed for a half hour, and went to the map room in his Turin headquarters. His staff officers were already there, reviewing plans one last time and telephoning field commanders. All served at Cadorna's pleasure and knew failure would cost them their jobs. It would all begin in minutes.

    The first ray of light poking through the window caught everyone's attention.

    Eighty miles southwest, whistles blew and up the men went. Having heard the barrage over the past week, they were confident. Blowing whistles and cries of andiamo! emptied the trenches. Elite units had reputations to defend, having trained for years to fight this battle. Over the next few days, they would learn just how good they really were. Clad in white and light grey combat jackets (1), elan and adrenaline suppressing fear, the Bersaglieri and Alipni led the charge. Behind them followed the regular troops, scornfully dubbed "the mules"; peasant conscripts from central and southern Italy. Veterans of the Turkish war, having expected another pushover, were rudely surprised. Boys too young to have fought then didn't know what to expect. No matter who they were, the Italians pushed towards the shelled rubble of Menton.

    General Mario Nicolis di Robilant (2) commanded Italy's Fourth Army from Sanremo, a mere twelve miles from the fighting. His aides worried they were too close and in danger; di Robilant replied that if his men risked their lives then so should he. Besides, Sanremo was a long way from Turin... meaning he could run things without Cadorna's interference. There was no physical danger, yet di Robilant's task was as hard as that of the fighting men. He had to coordinate an operation along a twelve-mile front with delayed and incomplete information. Early reports were not promising, and by midmorning, he had abandoned the timetable. Just reaching Nice would be an accomplishment.

    Di Robilant urgently telephoned his junior officers, not to reprimand but to analyze. How far had they come since dawn? Were their losses from machine-gun positions, infantry, artillery, or something else? How was terrain working against them? Few of these majors and lieutenant colonels had answers; contact with field forces was slow, and many of the captains and lieutenants leading the men were missing or killed. Nonetheless, the picture was depressingly clear.

    The French had been more than ready for the attack. Their infantry was intelligently deployed, sheltered on the far sides of mountains and in ravines. Immense concrete fortifications, clearly designed by experts, enhanced nature's defences. Perfectly sheltered, the French poured fire on the exposed Italians. Mobile 75mm guns could shoot from ledges and move quickly if need be. Mines had destroyed the mountain tracks across which di Robilant's men needed to advance. It appeared all that week of bombardment had done was to waste Italy's strategic shell reserve.

    Worst of all, from di Robilant's perspective, he had opposed nearly all of this. Having studied the battles on the Western Front, he had pushed for a brief, intense bombardment, and a more concentrated attack. His journal would prove as much at his court-martial. Yet Cadorna had issued orders from Turin over his head. Arguing would have cost him his career, and disobedience was unthinkable for a career soldier. All he could do was fulfill the orders he had received as best he could. Judgment from Cadorna and posterity would come after the job was done. The attack had to go forward.

    Across the lines in Grenoble, General Paul Maistre's war was proving just as hard.

    Maistre ought to have been happy. Militarily, things were going well. Communication with his frontline officers was far easier than di Robilants. French captains and lieutenants sat in broadly intact positions with maps and field telephones; regimental and divisional headquarters received routine and detailed updates from the front. Supplies travelled to fixed positions rather than having to cross no-man's-land, keeping French soldiers well-supplied. Casualties from the bombardment and morning fighting were high but manageable. The rubble of Castellar and Menton provided additional cover for French troops, denying the enemy roads. Maistre lamented the destruction while appreciating its utility. Against his expectations, it seemed clear Nice would hold.

    Yet Joseph Joffre was unhappy.

    The war was a week old. Cadorna had revealed his hand and struck on the southern extremity of the front with the bulk of his army, and all Maistre had done was defend. Joffre was pleased with how the defences (which he'd helped design) were holding up, but survival was not progress. Italy's commitment to Nice had to have weakened the rest of their front: it was now or never. He telephoned Maistre at noon on 9 October; the attack towards Turin was to begin in thirty-six hours. Maistre knew how readily Joffre disposed of subordinates. If he questioned his superior, he would be sacked and the offensive would go ahead. If he simply agreed, the offensive would go ahead, thousands of his countrymen would die to little gain, and then he would be sacked for failing to deliver.

    "Oui, General." The hardest words he'd ever said in his life. It would have made no difference, he told himself until his death. Sometimes he even believed it.

    Bombardment commenced at midnight on 11 October 1915; the men went over the top at Bardonecchia six hours later.

    As a sergeant, he got the whistle. "Everyone ready?", he whispered.

    Thirty grimy faces stared back at him. Platoon A (les Alphas Alpines, they called themselves) of the 202nd Line Regiment, Ninth Army, had taken a beating. His predecessor had passed down his sergeant's stripes after bleeding out in Picardy. First Lieutenant Lapin had gone home on one leg; his replacement clutched an early-morning brandy three miles back of the line. Henri, Guillaume, and the boys from Bordeaux were all dead; nine fresh-faced replacements stood in a corner. Have to watch them, try to keep them from getting killed. Lapin would have done the same for me. But the old guard survived. Mathieu Chambre had saved him from a machine-gun a lifetime ago at the Marne; he'd returned the favour at Artois. Corporal LaRouche and he had spent twelve hours in a sap last August, whispering stories and sharing rations. Have to try for their sake. But it all felt so unreal.

    "Synchronise watches, gentlemen. Time is... five fifty-seven!" His palms were sweaty as he triple-checked his bayonet. It seemed the most important thing in the world. Mountain wind blew snow by. "Whose fucking idea was this again?" If the Italians were about to kill him, defeatism was the least of his problems. Mathieu chuckled and said something lewd about General Maistre. Thank God for gallows humour.

    "Five fifty-eight!" Resignation took hold of him now. The machine, the Army, had won. He would go over the top in a hundred- no, ninety-nine- seconds, as certain as the earth would keep spinning and mountain snow would fall. Him and his friends were no longer individuals, not even part of les Alphas Alpines. They belonged to the French Army, which meant they would go over the top- pour la glorie! Dwelling on the possibilities was pointless when he couldn't affect them. Worry wasted energy.

    "Five fifty-nine!" He mentally apologised to the God Whose name he'd taken in vain. Would the Sacraments make a difference if worst came to worst? He hoped so.

    Dix, neuf, huit...

    "Bon chance, tout le monde."

    ...sept, six, cinq, quatre...

    Everyone grabbed the ladders.

    trois, deux, un...


    Les Alphas Alpines
    scrambled up the ladders, rifles in hand. Machine guns and rifles erupted a second later. Hell broke loose from its chains and leapt onto the Italian mountains.

    "COVER!" He threw himself down, scraping his hands... was his wrist broken? He hissed as blood seeped across his sleeve. "Stay behind me, stay together, and good luck!" He leapt to his feet, rifle in hand, and scrambled behind a boulder. Shoot, duck, reload, repeat. Recoil punched his chest. A million rifles assaulted his ears, broken only by screams. His heart raced, drowning out the pain from his wrist and weight of the rifle. Another man crouched behind him and he leapt around, pocket knife in hand.

    "It's me, Sergeant!" Mathieu was covered in gravel and blood. Sweat poured from his face and grime caked his beard. "Corporal LaRouche is down, sir", he screamed.

    "Take cover or you'll join him. Come on, we've wasted enough time here- RUN!" They sprinted across broken rock like mountain goats. Bullets tugged at his jacket and struck near his feet. Hunting me, the bastards. His blisters howled and his back ached under the weight of the pack, his heart seemed about to explode, and his lungs were on fire- but there was no time. Mathieu cried something but his words were lost. Leaping over a corpse, he crashed into a foxhole and bit against the pain from his wrist. His vision cleared and there was Mathieu. "So tell me", he panted, "what happened?"

    "Je ne sais pas." Mathieu had a broad, Gallic shrug. "One minute he was up, the next... this is worse than the West."

    "Who would have thought", he rasped, "that the Italians had all this in them? We-" A crashing shell threw them from the foxhole, slamming them into a bush. His wrist burned with pain- he couldn't move his hand. "Merde!" He knelt down and threw his pack aside. Every breath was a struggle. Nausea rose inside him, but he fought it down. Have to get out of here...stupid to kneel like this...have to...

    He never saw the bullet. One moment he was staggering, the next he was on his back. He'd only thought he'd hurt before. Pain, stench, and fear boiled up until he exploded, covering himself in blood and vomit. He was too weak to be ashamed. Death couldn't be so bad, could it? Just a quick blow and then off into the unknown. Not what the Father confessor said last night. But he is back of the line. The chaplain and the new Lieutenant were drinking in the rear. The generals were in Grenoble. And here he was. The fearful human had become a trapped animal. He thrashed and screamed, as much from anguish as physical pain. He had lost. Everything he had done- before the war and during it- had been a waste. Life culminated in this agony. He had failed. He was already dead; fighting was useless.

    If fighting is useless, why bother? If I cannot gain anything, why make the effort? What will a few minutes of struggle buy me? Peace washed over him. He had lost but no longer had to fight. Everything he loved- France, Julie, the platoon- was moot. A few moments from now he would be with God, for better or worse. Pain remained but tension faded. "Medic!", a man cried in the distance. The din faded and blue sky became black.

    His internal lights turned back on. Sensation spread through him. He remembered his breathing and heartbeat. Every thud, every rise and fall of his chest, felt new and fresh He was still alive, he realised, brain foggy from unconsciousness. Bright light and weakness kept his eyes shut, but he heard footsteps. Panic rose- but no. "C'est moi", said a distant voice. "le Docteur. Vous avez a un mal, n'est-ce pas?"

    he groaned, trying to wiggle his arm. Pain shot through him. He forced his eyes open for a second and saw a sling. "What is this?"

    "Broken in two places, and that is far from the worst. You were shot through that same shoulder, remember. A blessing you do not have an exit wound, and your tendons somehow remain intact. Otherwise we would have had to... it would have been terrible. As is, you'll be here for a few more days. Rear duty for a while afterwards."

    "Rear duty. I see." Disgust boiled up. How had he let himself get here? What would les Alphas do without him? Promote the Corporal, or another private if he's dead, and get on with the fucking war! "How did it... where are we?"

    The Doctor grimaced. "Almost twelve hours since you were wounded- you were knocked out while we operated, easier that way- and the lines have not moved. Bardonecchia will hold unless- or maybe until- our barrage levels these mountains. From what I hear, our comrades to the south in Nice are defending as well there as the Italians are here. It is..."

    It is a complete waste. He could fill in the Doctor's words easily enough. Your wound was a complete waste. "Never mind", he muttered. "Twenty more days to Turin, or so General Maistre says, n'est-ce pas?" Pierre Soilon laughed bitterly and threw up over his hospital pyjamas.

    1. Such units normally wore black but in combat they'd have needed camouflage. Based off of this image; admittedly not the most reliable source. Open to correction.
    2. This gentleman, who played a role in OTL's First Isonzo. Another case of generals with foreign names!
    Chapter IX- Some Damn Fool Thing In The Balkans
  • Chapter IX

    Some Damn Fool Thing In The Balkans

    Peace had always eluded the Balkan Peninusla. Ever since the Slavic invasions of the eighth century it had been a fractured battleground. Various hypotheses have been proposed- the mélange of clashing ethnicities and religions, the scarcity of arable land, and excess nationalism in a region long trapped between foreign Great Powers. Balkan affairs concerned all Great Powers. Russia had protected its "younger brother" Slavic nations as they gained independence from Turkey. As Orthodox Slavs, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece were all meant to enjoy Russian patronage... and support its Great Power interests. Balkan politics had a personal quality to Russia. They could not abandon their Serbian brother in their hour of need!

    The Habsburg Monarchy had a long history in the Balkans. Leopold II conquered Hungary in the early 18th Century, yet a preoccupation with its western neighbours precluded further advances. As the Ottoman Empire decayed, Vienna had become accustomed to the border and even viewed the Ottomans as a counterweight against Russia. Stability was the watchword, even if that meant supporting Turkey in 1854 (1) and helping carve it up thirty years later. Occupying and annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina ought to have restored order; instead it opened bitter conflict with nationalist groups. Serbia's 1903 revolution established a ferociously anti-Habsburg regime; Vienna responded by clamping down on nationalism. Serbs and Bosnians, with Belgrade's encouragement, pushed harder for secession, forcing the Habsburgs to double down and perpetuate the cycle. Various solutions had been proposed before the war- Franz Ferdinand's trialism, Conrad von Hotzendorf's calls for war, Emperor Franz Joseph's inaction- yet none had succeeded. Everyone knew something would give- and after Gavrillo Princip pulled the trigger, Vienna had its excuse. The Serbian question would be settled and order would come one way or another!

    Having risen from the dead, Serbia was determined not to go back. Defeat at Kosovo in 1389 had led to five centuries of horrific Turkish occupation. Passing their cultural heritage down without any political basis, or hope of acquiring one, had been a Herculean task. At times, Serbia had been an idea more than a nation. Yet the idea mattered enough to inspire five centuries of martyrs against all odds. Columbus discovered America, Europe devolved into religious war, revolutions cut across America and France, Napoleon came and went, Britain and France colonised half the world- and still Serbia survived in hearts and minds. Self-rule came in 1830; full independence in 1878. Extreme nationalism had carried the Serbian identity through Turkish rule; now, it convinced the new nation it could trust no one. Russia was a long way away; Austria sat to the north and Turkey to the south. Fomenting nationalism and solidarity amongst their fellow Slavs was the only way. Government propaganda expressed solidarity with Slavs under Habsburg and Turkish rule, while turning a blind eye to terrorist groups operating on their soil. Yet no one in Belgrade had wanted war with the Austrian giant. Watching and waiting for an opportunity had seemed the safest path.

    And then Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand.

    The Serbian government had hoped to talk its way out of the crisis. Privately few were unhappy- always good to see the Habsburgs taken down a peg- but publicly they couldn't afford to associate with this. Yet Austria's ultimatum asked too much. If they turned over key parts of their sovereignty to Vienna, how was that any different from slipping back under the Turks? No one wanted war, but if it was the price for survival they would fight nobly. So began fourteen months of skilled defence. The goal was to let the enemy come to them. Repeated failed offensives across the Danube depleted Habsburg strength while boosting Serbian confidence. Despite occasional shipments across chaotic Albania or neutral Greece, the country had to be self-reliant. Serbia's men fought with a certain nihilism: they could spend another five hundred years under foreign rule if they failed, leaving them with nothing to lose. Every day they held the foe at bay counted.

    Italy had watched all this from across the Adriatic. Like Serbia, she had only recently emerged from centuries of Habsburg dominance, and many of her countrymen lived across the border. Nationalism and anti-Austrian sentiment were nearly as strong in Rome as in Belgrade. Italy was also larger and wealthier, while geography provided distance from potential enemies. Strategy was a matter of interest, not of survival, allowing Italy to think and act on a longer-term basis than Serbia. For them, balance was key. Rome disliked and distrusted Austria, and certainly didn't wish to see it extend its reach across the Balkans. Yet an explosion of nationalism would have produced a chaotic power vacuum. Italy retained independent interests- exploiting the civil wars in Albania, controlling the Adriatic fishing trade, and building up its navy. Balance was key. Watching their Austrian ally stumble convinced the Italians that neutrality had been a wise choice.

    Having a base across the Adriatic greatly facilitated Italy's position. They had occupied the southern city of Valona and adjacent islands in late 1914 to prevent their falling into Greek hands, and it existed as an enclave in a chaotic sea. Greece's occupation zone lay forty miles south; Albania's civil war raged outside city limits. Refugees streamed towards Vlorë. Foreign soldiers meant stability and, if God was kind, a ticket to a better land. Valona gave Italy control of a 55-mile strait across the Adriatic. With it, they controlled who entered and left. Austria-Hungary had initially objected- Italy could cut them off from the wider Mediterranean, rendering them de facto landlocked- but as relations with the Entente soured Italy offered a compromise. Mine chains and naval patrols cut across the strait, denying the Adriatic to Entente submarines. The area remained safe for Austro-Hungarian shipping until Italy joined the war. Vienna never reconciled itself to the occupation- it left the Adriatic an Italian lake- but ultimately accepted it in the final negotiations before the war. Despite sporadic shelling and mining, Valona would play a key role in the war as a key logistic line, somewhere which attracted much military investment. Albania's post-Civil War government agreed to a 100-year lease in 1918, renewed by King Skanderbeg VI until 2118.

    Entering the war allowed Italy to actively defend its Balkan interests. Parliament declared its "responsibility to defend the legitimate, neutral government" two days into the war. Former Ottoman administrator Essad Pasha, after an exile in Italy, had roused the country's Muslim peasants and formed a government at Durrës. (2) His reliance on Italy and need to placate local warlords made him perfect. If Pasha's shaky regime could control all Albania, he would make a perfect Italian client. Salandra had toyed with sending him reinforcements before his downfall, something Sonnino agreed with. During Italy's autumn mobilisation, a fifty-thousand-strong XVI Corps was established in Valona, commanded by Emilio Bertotti. (3) Its official mission was to protect Albania from a Serbian invasion, yet it spent most of its time shooting at Pasha's domestic political foes.

    Nearly irrelevant to defeating the Entente, XVI Corps would serve honourably when war came.

    Bulgaria, another nation in search of a path, now saw fit to join the Central Powers. Like Serbia, it had just been resurrected from five centuries of Turkish rule. Unlike Serbia, it expressed nationalist sentiment through an openly bellicose foreign policy. Its people hated the Ottoman Empire and resented Serbia and Greece for "betraying" it in the Second Balkan War. (4) Russia had championed its independence and relations remained fair in 1914. Joining the Entente would have meant allying with Serbia against Austria-Hungary, as well as sacrificing valuable German investment. A land war with the Ottoman Empire, while emotionally fulfilling, would have been military suicide. Yet joining the Central Powers would have entailed alignment with the hated Turks; Russophiles opposed betraying St. Petersburg. Yet Bulgarian nationalists coveted Serbian and even Albanian territory. War would ensure revenge against the Serbs and cement Greater Bulgaria. As with Italy, a game of diplomatic tug-of-war was played in Sofia throughout summer 1915. The Entente offer of Thrace and Serbian border cessions was counterbalanced by the promise of all Macedonia. German victories at Gorlice-Tarnow and elsewhere contrasted with Entente failures on the Western Front and at Gallipoli. Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov fought the same political battles as Salandra and Sonnino, with a similar result. Italy declared war the same day Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia, this time with German help. Bulgaria joined the war two weeks later. (5)

    Like a condemned man who has repented, Serbia faced the end with calm. Their men were unafraid of the odds and knew how to punch above their weight. Yet repeated successful defences had killed off most of their prewar army, especially trained officers, and used up irreplaceable supplies. Typhus had further thinned their ranks. Most knew in their bones that they were doomed yet they had to try. Fatalism somehow boosted morale rather than strengthening it. If they could neither win nor escape, survival became irrelevant. All that was left to do was fight with honour. Their ancestors had tried and failed at Kosovo and doomed ther homeland, condemning Serbia to wander through the desert for five centuries. Yet the world remembered their courage, and they had become first martyrs, then legends. That legend had motivated generations of Serbs, who eventually led their homeland to freedom in the nineteenth century. If the process repeated itself, the men knew Serbia would one day be free again. Cognisant that the situation was hopeless, Field Marshal Radomir Putnik urged King Peter to flee to neutral Romania or Greece. Enemy forces would soon seal both borders but if he hurried he could reach Russia or Egypt. King Peter would have liked to save himself and his family but remained with his people. Constantine XI had become a hero across the Balkans through his martyrdom and he would do the same.

    Italy's mission in Albania, while officially peaceful, met with nearly as much resistance. XVI Corps received its orders on 11 October- they were to march on Durrës and Tirana to secure a "political settlement with the Prime Minister". Leaving a token garrison in Valona, they marched along the mountain roads. Pasha had ordered the Army and police not to resist, yet tribesmen and peasants paid him no heed. The Prime Minister was a foreigner inviting other foreigners to trod over their country. Peasants hid food and fled to the mountains, forcing the Italians to burn through their rations faster than expected. Though Pasha was a coreligionist, Albanian Muslims hated his regime. That he would use "infidel foreigners" against their homeland came as no surprise, and they gave no quarter. Christians, by contrast, often provided directions and provisions. Local warlords knew they were out of their league against what was a comparatively well-equipped and well-trained force. After a few skirmishes ended disastrously, they left well alone.

    When they reached Durrës on 1 November, XVI Corps was distinctly worse for wear. Pasha welcomed them with a banquet and a two-hour speech about what a great service they were rendering his homeland, and how the "Serbian infidels" would never attack them now! The men were too busy stuffing themselves to notice. Meanwhile, crucial diplomacy took place behind closed doors. An Italian diplomatic team met with Pasha at his lavish residence, the former royal palace. Their proposal was simple: XVI Corps would help solidify Pasha's control of the country and train his private army, in exchange for which his regime would join the Central Powers. Pasha didn't have to consider for long. Without Italian asylum in spring 1914, his rivals would have killed him, and he couldn't have rebuilt his regime without Italian support. Foreign soldiers in his country didn't thrill him, but he knew he couldn't evict them. Besides, as soon as the Italians left another rival would make a power bid. Making sure Italy had a stake in his regime was his best chance of survival, and joining the war was the best means to that end. Furthermore, every day brought the Austro-German juggernaut closer. Maintaining relations with the ascendant Central Powers would soon be a matter of survival, something fighting alongside them would secure. Serbian weakness offered the possibility of a territorial grab as well.

    Essad Pasha signed a pact with the Italian delegates on 15 November. XVI Corps moved up to the Serbian border, doing its best to construct supply lines back to Valona. Pasha's ramshackle army remained in place: Albania's unruly tribes had no interest in his war, and if his forces were busy in southern Serbia they might attack Durrës and destroy him. Watching foreigners die for his regime while doing nothing more than tax their supply lines was fine by him. The formal declaration of war on 23 November changed little.

    The Serbs arrived only a few days later.

    1. Albiet nominally, astonishing the world by their ingratitude.
    2. Essad Pasha Toptani
    3. Italy sent 100,000 men in OTL; the demands of fighting in North Africa and sending an expeditionary force to the Western Front halve that.
    4. Although Bulgaria started the latter conflict.
    5. Many in TTL must imagine a correlation between Italy joining the Central Powers and Bulgaria so doing; OTL proves that's not the case.
    Chapter X- Exodus
  • Chapter X


    "The city is lost but I live."

    So spoke Constantine Palaiologos at the Fall of Constantinople. His city was doomed yet the emperor had fought on. The legend of the last emperor dying on the parapets had inspired Slavs for four hundred years. King Peter of Serbia was determined to do the same. Two field armies sat across the Danube, Bulgaria lay to the southeast, and the Italian XVI Corps waited in Albania. Victory was impossible; few would survive defeat. Honour was the best King Peter could hope for. He would stay with his people to the end.

    The Central Powers attacked on 7 October. Austro-Hungarian and German units forced their way over the Danube, quickly encircling Belgrade. The Serbian government had long since fled and they entered a ghost town. Haunted faces and stray dogs greeted them. Fears of mass looting proved groundless- they had to keep the pursuit going. Northern Serbia was mostly flat and with decent roads; perfect conditions for an advancing army. Meanwhile, the Bulgarians attacked from the east. Rugged mountains proved no obstacle to men who had grown up in this terrain. Nish fell within days; Skopje shortly thereafter. Bulgaria immediately began preparing for annexation: civilian officials came from Sofia to oversee reconstruction, street signs went up in Bulgarian, and newspapers began denouncing the so-called Belgrade regime. To the southwest, Italian forces pushed into Kosovo despite the poor terrain, achieving minimal progress.

    Serbian forces traded space for time, retreating into the defensible southwestern mountains. Albania's Prime Minister Essad Pasha had led his country into the Central Powers with Italian backing, closing off one escape route. Their only hope was to reach Salonika, which British troops had occupied to use as a Balkan base. They would have to travel along the Albanian border, taking care not to fall foul of the Bulgarians, Italians, or any of the Albanian factions. Despite Pasha's declaration of war, the country was in such a poor state it might just be possible. (1) The only alternative was being cut down where they stood.

    As they passed through villages, young boys and geriatrics donned the colours despite having no place on a conventional battlefield. Many lacked weapons, uniforms, and training, but they had grit and patriotism. "Honour" led them to violent and often horrid deaths. Women and children often followed suit. Villages, property, and crops couldn't be saved but life and bodily integrity might. Just as their Slavic ancestors had a millennium before, a whole people trekked down the Balkan mountains. Fathers marched in front with rifle and bayonet; women and children were two miles back with the baggage train. No trash was discarded lest it give the enemy a clue. Stench hung about the refugees, every breath reminding them of their fate. Coughing and choking, people marched on, eyes red and spit on their chins. Food was half a bowl of kasha and two slices of bread a day. Melted snow was oddly refreshing. Cold winds savaged the refugees like an artillery barrage, but there was no taking cover. People died of who-knew-what: typhus, cold, starvation, exhaustion, grief, or simply losing the will to live. They crumpled on the trail, wearing military uniform, civilian suits, skirts, or schoolboy trousers, without drawing a moment's notice. The King rode a sedan chair as Constantine XI had, without which he wouldn't have survived. Peter battled typhus, fear for his son (despite his history of ill health, Crown Prince Alexander marched with the men), and an overwhelming depression.

    He had lost. Peter had tried to do his best, but he could not. Had he been wrong to decline Austria's ultimatum in summer 1914? How easy it would have been to swallow pride! His people could have escaped so much suffering had he simply chosen better. Now he understood what it meant to be a martyr.

    The crying and the screaming.

    The old woman with the red hair, half her face burnt to a crisp. Those breadcrusts didn't save the girl in the end- born 1910, died 1915- what a waste. Looked filling really.

    The child wanted his mummy. Where was she? Mummy!

    Dark shadow beneath the tree. Something German, creaking footsteps, no one around, something German, mountain rock falling four hundred feet, something German...

    You did your best Your Royal Highness. A hero for fifty generations of Serbs but not this fucking one haha, such a hero of a king I gave them this... but it's honourable.

    Serbia will live forever- God of Justice; Thou who saved us when in deepest bondage cast, hear Thy Serbian children's voices, be our help as in the past-

    My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?

    Shaking hard-- "Wake up, sir!"

    "Where are we?" His eyes widened at the foreign flag on the mountaintop. "My God!"

    "They are not a humanitarian issue but a political one", Constantine wrote on the first of December 1915. The Greek king- who referred to himself as Palaiologos' successor- wanted nothing to do with the Serbian refugees. Part of this was pragmatism. Nearly a hundred thousand Serbians were assembled on the border, in dire need of food and medical attention. Many were armed, and there was no telling where they'd go next. Allowing them into his country- even if only to link up with the Royal Navy- wasn't an option. The Serbians would everything in sight, steal what wasn't bolted down, and kill anyone who got in their way. It would be an armed invasion, nothing less. Crucially, key Serbian political leaders were amongst the refugees. Granting them formal political asylum was technically legal yet Berlin and Sofia might not see it that way. Central Powers forces might force their way into Greece to capture King Peter or the Serb parliament. The ensuing war would be brief and end with German flags in Athens.

    Beyond basic national security, domestic and international politics were major factors. King Constantine was of Danish ancestry and married to a Prussian princess; this disposed him towards the Central Powers. Britain's occupation of Salonika had outraged the King, who'd considered forcibly evicting them. Despite this, Constantine opposed declaring war. As commander-in-chief, he knew the state of Greece's army: nine divisions which hadn't recovered from the Balkan Wars. Britain could easily sweep the Greek navy aside, bombard Athens, and blockade the coast. Nor could he stand to be on the same side as either the Bulgarians or Turks. After conferring with his favourite advisers, Constantine formally closed the northern border. Central Powers ambassadors were informed that their men were to halt at the frontier, but that all Serbians in Greece would be interred and delivered to them. It was, the King hoped, a reasonable balance between the needs of the Central Powers and the demands of neutrality.

    Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way.

    As strong-willed as he was liberal, Eleftherios Venizelos (2) had served as Prime Minister for five years. His supporters- who dubbed themselves Venizelists- came from every walk of life. His leadership in the Balkan Wars endeared him to nationalists; liberals and intellectuals appreciated his reform initiatives. People referred to him behind his back- certainly not when the press could hear- as the "King of the Hellenes". Many considered Venizelos as integral to Greece as the Parthenon. None of this endeared him to King Constantine. The monarch viewed him as a potential rival and was suspicious of his Anglophilia. Both were nationalists yet had very different views on how to strengthen Greece. Venizelos sought Anglo-French help against Turkey, and had called for Greek troops to go to Gallipoli, as well as acquiescing to Britain's occupation of Salonika. Triumph over Bulgaria and Turkey would leave Greece king of the Balkans, and cooperating with the Entente was the surest means to that end.

    The collapse of Serbia doomed relations with the King. Constantine blamed him for the British occupation of Salonika, and dissolved Parliament in October. A lesser man would have taken the snub and retired meekly, but Venizelos was too aware of his own strength. A coup wasn't an option, but he could do the next best thing. Venizelos returned to his native Crete, where he was greeted with thunderous applause. "Ζητω ο Βενιζελος!", they cried. "Ζήτω ο γενέθλιος γιος της Κρήτης!" (3) With nothing to lose, Venizelos could speak uninhibited, and he soon became far more of a nuisance to Constantine than he had in Athens. Daily, he denounced the "German prince Constantine and his lackey Prime Minister" who "force such sufferings, of almost mediaeval proportions, upon the innocent population of Serbia!" The Venizelist governor of Crete faded into the background, ceding effective power to the exiled Prime Minister. Contrary to what his detractors claimed (and subsequent events suggested), Venizelos didn't intend to form a rival government or declare Cretan independence. His hope was that Constantine would try and fail to govern without Venizelists, forcing him to recall the Prime Minister. Having made the King back down, Venizelos would have near-total power.

    Unfortunately, events on the mainland were moving too fast for the Prime Minister.

    Five thousand Serbians reached the town of Slabinje on 3 December. Nestled in the mountains of Northern Epirus, Slabinje had been under Greek occupation since autumn 1914. It was nominally part of the "Republic of Northern Epirus" yet Greek soldiers patrolled the streets and Athens considered it theirs. Upon reaching Slabinje, the Serbians cheered wildly. The Italians would never dare cross the border-- they were free! The overwhelmed Greek captain in charge feared chaos: these people had just escaped from hell, what might they do to get their hands on supplies? Reinforcements poured into the village, shepherding the Serbians into a camp on the shores of nearby Lake Ohrid. Arrangements were made for the Hellenic Red Cross to visit the camp, as conditions were horrid. Malnutrition and related ailments claimed dozens every day, as did infection and cholera (Lake Ohrid was far from potable). Repeated typhus outbreaks prompted the Greeks to quarantine the camp. This was a humanitarian disaster, yet the political damage was minimal. Military occupation and quarantine kept nosy reporters out, keeping the outside world in the dark. Since the Red Cross was overseeing care, the cost to the government was minimal.

    King Constantine wanted the refugees gone. Besides being an epidemic waiting to happen, the camp violated his agreement with the Central Powers. German officers- considered more trustworthy than Bulgarians- entered under flag of truce in late January to detain "prisoners of political or military utility". Two dozen Serbian parliamentarians and a hundred officers of varying rank were identified and taken into captivity. They would spend the rest of the war in a prison camp south of Belgrade, spreading typhus to their German guards. That left over four thousand men, who the Germans expressly did not want. These women, children, and elderly had no productive or political value, and they could spread disease or cause unrest. Constantine was furious. What was he to do with these useless mouths?

    The only ones who could help him were Eleftheros Venizelos and the Royal Navy.

    Constantine reached out to the British ambassador in Athens, Sir Francis Elliot, on Christmas Day 1915. He described the appalling conditions in the refugee camp, shocking Elliot, who had heard only rumours. He had decided to transfer the refugees to Crete, which had a healthier climate and where the risk of an "incident" with the Central Powers was minimal. This was both humanitarian and perfectly neutral, yet it lay beyond the Greek navy's capacities. Would the Royal Navy squadrons based in Salonika be willing to assist Greece?

    Elliot considered. Unbeknownst to Constantine, London had decided Salonika was untenable. The so-called Gardeners of Salonika were achieving nothing crouched behind mountains and fortifications. Supplying them, especially in the face of Italian and Ottoman naval opposition, was an expensive challenge. Worst of all, they lacked the strength to repel a major Bulgarian attack. Evacuation orders were imminent. (4) Could Britain afford to take four and a half thousand refugees with them as they left? Elliot thanked Constantine for his time and referred the matter to London. The day after New Year's 1916, he had his answer.

    Picking the refugees up from Greece's western coast wasn't an option. The Regia Marina would sweep over the transport fleet, and providing them sufficient escorts would be too risky. It would also take too long and cost too much, delaying the evacuation of Salonika. Yet if the Greeks could transport the refugees to Salonika, the Royal Navy would be willing to move them to Crete. Constantine wasn't thrilled at the idea of moving four and a half thousand refugees across his country, but this was his best chance to solve the issue. Regular Army units, not border militia, supervised the transfer. The Serbians traveled in a cramped sealed train, eating Army rations. Little attention was paid to hygiene, with the sick and healthy side-by-side, but the Greeks didn't care. Soon these miserable refugees and the damned British would be out of their country! A skeleton British force greeted them at Salonika on 1 February. Most of the warships and soldiers had been sent to Cairo, but no one expected any trouble. This was an internal matter of a neutral country, and the British ships carried no military cargo. Twelve hours later, Constantine watched the convoy sail past Athens with binoculars. He smiled at the thought of sending that upstart Venezelos a humanitarian catastrophe. We'll see how much he likes being his own man then.

    Some King I look like. His beard was overgrown and grimy, he wore a torn civilian overcoat, and limped. The tossing of the merchant ship made him want to vomit. He had no business being here, not when so many of his people were gone. A salty tear fell into the Aegean. Was he safe in British hands? Would the Cretan authorities, if they knew who he was, turn him over to the enemy? Will I ever see Serbia again? Will Alexander ever rule what is rightfully his? He knew the answer in his bones. Why me, God? Why me? What good was a useless king, one who had to disguise himself as a commoner? If he shouted to his countrymen, "I am your King, Serbia lives!", would they even recognise him? Were these four thousand dying men all that remained of the great nation? God of Justice; Thou who saved us when in deepest bondage cast, hear Thy Serbian children's voices, be our help as in the past. The prayer repulsed him. You could have done things differently, hypocrite. This war- and this fate- is your fault. King Peter would have leapt into the sea had damnation not awaited.

    "Commander, we have a contact!" The executive officer stepped back from the periscope with a ruddy Sicilian grin. "Look for yourself, sir."

    "Show me, signore." Luigi Rizzo peered through the periscope. "Guarda, guarda", he muttered, "the inglesi are certainly careless." He smirked. "Perhaps it is carrying coal? Wouldn't like to sink it if that's so." Rizzo considerered. No warships in sight but the ship was moving bloody fast- he couldn't chase it down. Going due south... not turning east towards Egypt. Were the inghlesi trying to put men or equipment in Crete? Either that, or it was about to make a very sharp turn. Either way, he stood a very good chance of cutting it off.

    "Take us down to 035, signore. Cut... south by southeast, fast as we can go." Klaxons blared and the pressure increased. Rizzo's ears popped as he did some quick calculations. "Nineteen knots, about two miles away..." He smiled. "Even at the speed he's going, he will soon cross our path. Tell the torpedo crews to stand by."

    "Already done, Commander." The executive officer grinned. "Not altering course at all. If he doesn't know we're here..."

    "...then he's as good as dead already." Rizzo took a deep breath. The submarine was in position and the merchantman was cruising along nicely. Nothing he could do to change things now. "Eight hundred yards away... seven hundred fifty..." Now or never.

    "Fire tube one! Fire tube two!" With a great rushing noise, two torpedoes flew out of the ship, leaving bubbly trails in their wake. Rizzo counted silently, fingers crossed. Four seconds later two great explosions cut through the Aegean. Rizzo peered through the periscope, ears ringing. The British freighter had never seen it coming. Already it was listing nearly twenty degrees and taking on plenty of water. Smoke billowed from its bowels. A good thing we attack like our German allies do, he thought. Far more efficient.

    Ten minutes later the ship was below the waterline. Unbeknownst to Rizzo, King Peter had just achieved martyrdom.

    1. Considerably harder than what happened OTL-- no surprise it failed
    2. Eleftherios Venezelos-- what a first name!
    3. "Long live Venizelos!" "Long live Crete's native son!" Apologies for that-- I wanted to practise typing with different keyboard inputs for a seperate coding project I'm doing... all Greek to me....
    4. This is actually OTL. Britain wanted to evacuate in January 1916 but the French convinced them to stay. Since Salonika is all-British ITTL (the French are in the Alps and Tunisia), London quits the front early.
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    Chapter XI- East Africa
  • Chapter XI

    East Africa

    Possession of African colonies was arguably the great status symbol of prewar Europe. Britain and France combined controlled three-fourths of the continent; Belgium, Portugal, and Italy were saved from irrelevance by doing the same. Colonies varied in size, profitability, and function- Algeria was a "France away from France" with a significant white minority, Egypt a strategically placed protectorate, Namibia a desert strip valuable only for its diamonds. Yet their presence was all that was needed. In the years before the war, it had been proposed that combatants would leave enemy colonies untouched. All the European states, this thinking went, had basic mutual respect beneath their shifting alliances, and theft of colonies would strip their foes of Great Power status. That was seen as "hitting below the belt".

    It was a naive plan ignored once the shooting started.

    Africa played an essential role in the war. The banks of the Nile- the continent's most fertile region- produce abundant potatoes and vegetables, much of which went to feed British soldiers. Truck tyres and boot soles were made from Congolese rubber. Millions of underpaid blacks toiled in fields and mines under appalling conditions, apathetic to the war and simply trying to make ends meet. Italian entry in the war complicated matters, yet Cairo, Alexandria, Rabat, and Dakar remained major export centres. Yet Africa's principal contribution was manpower. Thousands of Africans served Britain and France far from their home countries (with millions of Indians doing likewise). They fought loyally and often impressed their white officers with their skill and determination, even if racism often left them last in line for supplies, transport, and relief. Most took pride in representing their homelands in the great struggle, identifying both with their colonising power and ethnic group back home. Just like their white counterparts, they were motivated by honour, simple patriotism, and an overwhelming desire to get back home. Entente officers who questioned, as one did, "the fighting spirit and physical hardiness of the n----- in contrast to the British race", ought to have asked their German counterparts on the Western Front. These men, who had no blacks under their command, "knew that whenever the Gurkhas or the Sengalese came over the top, we faced the hardest of fights." It is an open question whether or not the Entente could have withstood the pressures of 1915 without colonial troops, as well as to what degree they helped in 1916.

    Barring a few white officers, it was the Africans themselves who fought in their home continent. Units such as the Kings African Rifles and Schutztruppe had existed in skeleton form before the war as colonial militias; they were rapidly expanded into mobile light infantry. Such men, when trained and led well, fought better than whites would have: they knew the geography, were resistant to diseases and were comfortable in the climate. However, they were prone to defection if ethnic alliances conflicted with colonial, and many deserted at the first opportunity. Why should they fight a white man's war?

    Italian entry into the Central Powers opened two new theatres: the Horn of Africa and Libya. It was fortunate for the Entente that the Central Powers had been late arrivals to colonialism. Germany's colonies, though resilient, were small and scattered: the Allies could take their time in reducing them. The same held true for Italy's possessions. Eritrea and Somaliland had only been won fairly recently and, at times, could barely withstand native opposition. Libya was larger, yet sparsely inhabited beyond the coast. No attack into Egypt would come from the desert, so it posed no real threat. Yet the Entente still needed to capture these outposts, which would cost time and resources.

    Britain viewed the Horn of Africa as an extension of the existing East African campaign, and tried to coordinate operations in the Horn of Africa with those in Tanganyika. India Expeditionary Force "D" (1) was formed in Nairobi in November 1915. Consisting of two veteran infantry divisions and three cavalry regiments plus a South African infantry brigade, it was designed to be light and mobile. Its South African commander, Jacob van Deventer (2), believed that Italy's position in East Africa was unstable and that if he could take the capital, everything would fall apart. Van Deventer's men crossed the border on the fourth of December, pleased to be operating in bearable winter weather instead of a scorching South African summer. Italian border guards threw up their hands after a few perfunctory shots. Meanwhile, ships of the Royal Navy's East Indies Station, led by the obsolescent battleship HMS Swiftsure, bombarded Mogadishu. They would remain in the area for the remainder of the campaign, leaving the East Indies bare yet terrifying the Italians. Meanwhile, Van Deventer continued his advance. Somali militias sniped at advance guards and supply lines, but lacked the strength for a pitched battle. The arid steppe offered few opportunities for ambushes. Van Deventer assumed- correctly- that the Italians would make a stand at Mogadishu.

    His real foe was not the Italians, but the conditions. Mogadishu lay over three hundred miles from the Kenyan border, without paved roads or railways. Just as armies had since Alexander's day, van Deventer's men travelled on foot, rations on their backs and coolies carrying supplies. The pace was dreadfully slow, and even in December, heatstroke claimed lives. Salt tablets and water were more valuable than bullets. Yet there was no alternative but to press on. Pausing in the middle of the desert would deplete their supplies and leave them exposed to counterattack. Once Mogadishu fell, they'd have ample supplies and a safe place to rest. And every day they wasted was a day the Italians strengthened the city.

    The Italian position was more precarious than it seemed. The north of the colony was consumed by the Dervish Rebellion- something spreading across the border to Britain and Ethiopia. Wartime pressures precluded crushing the Dervishes, yet they could wait. Keeping the vassal Sultanates within the colony loyal was more important. The Hobyo and Majerteen Sultanates had allied with the Italians in the late 1880s. In exchange for assenting to a protectorate, they retained sovereignty and received help against their rivals. Italian administrators had spent the past thirty years keeping the Sultanates in line while avoiding provocation. Keeping a show of force was always difficult and if the colonial capital fell, the Sultanates might defect. Furthermore, the Sultans might not sacrifice their own men, and enforcing the terms of the protectorate would be difficult. Nonetheless, the governor had to try. Embassies travelled to the respective capitals, informing the Sultans that the time had come. Hobyo- the further south- responded well enough. Proximity to the British gave them a greater stake in the fighting, with the Sultan comparing Mogadishu to a shield protecting his land. A thousand Hobyo warriors in antiquated Italian kit would fight at Mogadishu, their valour earning van Deventer's notice. Majerteen was more reluctant. The Dervish rebellion was happening on their soil, and they feared attack from Ethiopia. Besides, letting Britain take Italy or Hobyo down a peg was fine by them. The governor in Mogadishu was furious but there was little he could do.

    While Van Deventer advanced up the desert road and Mogadishu's garrison readied themselves, diplomats clashed in Addis Ababa. Both sides coveted Ethiopia- Germany hoped its men would march on the Suez- and Italian entry into the war enhanced its importance. Ethiopia had defeated Italy twenty years prior at Adwa, and bitterness ran deep on both sides. After Italy joined the Central Powers, many proposed allying with the Entente. Eritrea and Somalia had once been Ethiopian; reclaiming even part of them would be glorious. Powerful court figures pushed for intervention, but- as with Venezelos and Constantine in Greece- the monarch pushed back. Emperor Lij Iyasu sympathised with the Central Powers, and he had a special affinity for Ottoman Turkey (giving rise to charges of secretly being a Muslim, impossible to prove or disprove). (3) Lij Iyasu's religious and political beliefs contrasted with hatred of Italy and the overwhelming material superiority of the Entente, yet he was Emperor. Britain considered mounting a coup, but feared the consequences of failure. Unpopular neutrality lasted for the rest of the war, though two Ethiopian volunteer companies eventually served under van Deventer. Lij Iyasu's infamouly corrupt rule would last until his death in 1935; his daughter Alem Tsehai Eyasu reigned as Queen Sheba until her death in 2003. (4)

    The guns rumbled at Mogadishu on the fourteenth of January 1916. A month and a half was a long time to cross three hundred miles, and the mixed force was worse for wear. The defenders had not been idle, digging trenches and mounting their handful of machine-guns around the perimeter. Italian civilians were en route to neutral Mozambique under the Red Cross flag; Somali ones had been sent into the countryside. Supplies- from rations to bandages to shells- were adequate, if not plentiful. Van Deventer's first attack met with bitter resistance; light units skilled at marching through desert were ill-equipped for storming a city. He settled in for a siege, and an aeroplane sent a request for reinforcements to Nairobi. The Royal Navy blasted the defenders daily, destroying Mogadishu and killing the governor in the process, but the city held until the fourth week of February. Most of the Hobyo had long since fled, leaving only a handful of weary Italians who just wanted to die in their native country. Van Deventer settled down. Attrition had done its dirty work.

    The Hobyo reacted with sheer panic. Having thrown everything against the British and failed (and remembering British brutality in previous campaigns), they decided to surrender. Surrendering of their own free will might bring clemency. Van Devender was thus perplexed to receive a "letter of unconditional capitulation" from the Hobyo sultan, and his first question was how to occupy the Sultanate with his worn-out men. The Hobyo turned over the handful of Italians once the British arrived, asking only to be left in peace. Unable to make a political settlement, Van Devender occupied the Sultanate and referred the matter to London; the Colonial Office granted Hobyo a protectorate of its own in late 1918.

    Majerteen viewed all this with calm. Having forseen a British victory, their Sultan was willing to work with the new order. An emissary boarded a Royal Navy destroyer three weeks after Hobyo's surrender; he subsequently conferred with Van Deventer. If Britain would guarantee its sovereignty, protect its borders against Ethiopia and help it crush the Dervishes, Majerteen would turn on Italy and, it was hinted, be open to a protectorate. The emissary reminded Van Deventer that unlike Hobyo, Majerteen retained its army; attempting to conquer them would end poorly. Negotiations ended inconclusively, but Van Deventer did not attempt to occupy Majerteen: proof of its strength. Majerteen quickly adjusted to the new order and later received a unique honour. The final draft of the Treaty of Valencia awarded it full diplomatic recognition as a sovereign state, a formal declaration of independence having been issued on New Years Day 1916. Majerteen was the first new African state to have its equal sovereignty so recognised; for that reason pan-Africanists today hold it in high regard. (5)

    The collapse of Italian Somaliland had little effect on the war's course. Its real importance would come at the peace table, as Italy tried to salvage some symbol of a nominal victory. Fighting continued on the continent, however- as Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck famously dodged the Entente until the war's last day, and as both sides wrangled in the Libyan Desert.

    Africa had not wanted this war but it would know no peace.

    1. A, B, and C existed OTL and fought von Lettow-Vorbeck
    2. Jacob van Deventer, whose transfer from South Africa was accelerated by a few months ITTL
    3. Lij Iyasu
    4. Real woman- if not on Wikipedia- but I originated the regnal name.
    5. Without either Halie Selassie as Emperor or Italy invading in 1936, Ethiopia loses some- though not all- of that lustre.
    Chapter XII- The Desert War
  • Chapter XII

    The Desert War

    North Africa had long been subject to outside forces. Muslim belief had tied the people to the Middle East since the Seventh Century; the Ottoman sultans had combined hard power with professed spiritual authority. Yet proximity to Europe made North Africa a natural object of colonialism. France's Algerian venture had begun in 1830; Britain constructed the critical Suez Canal thirty-nine years later. This gave the European powers vested interests in the region and they acted accordingly. By 1914 North Africa was as much an extension of European power as the rest of the continent.

    It was due to become a battleground.

    Italy's forces in Libya were understrength and ill-prepared for war. After conquering the colony in 1912, Italy had fought an endless battle of administration. Keeping the fortified coastal cities, with home just a few days at sea away, was one thing. Maintaining overland communications and quelling insurgents was quite another. Northwestern Tripolitania was the wealthiest and most orderly; Cyrenacia and Fezzan dragged behind. Libya was included in Italy's autumn mobilisation, yet distance and priorities delayed things. Shipping supplies from Venice to Tobruk was easier than fighting for scarce rail freight or driving them down desert roads. When engines overheated or sandstorms covered roads, men and supplies travelled on camel's back as they had under the Pharoahs. Settler militias were growing, but a long way from regular combat units. (1) Bringing in reinforcements took time, and Libya was nowhere near ready come 1 October. Lieutenant General Giovanni Amegilo, governor of both Tripolitania and Cyrenacia (2), objected but vowed to place the colony "at the disposal of the Motherland". Amigelo knew too well that he could not attack either Egypt or Tunisia for a very long time. Yet he knew the endless swathes of desert (and the familiarity of the officer corps with them), the hardiness of the settler militias, and the courage of Italy's regular army. When Britain invaded, as he believed they must, Amigelo knew Libya would resist.

    Britain's Force in Egypt, established in summer 1914, was headquartered in Cairo. It had distinguished itself fighting in the Siani Peninsula, keeping the Suez Canal out of enemy hands. Most of its forces remained on the peninsula, threatening to attack the Holy Land and tying down Ottoman forces. Five hundred miles of arid desert and local patrolmen separated it from the Libyan border. With his hands more than full, Major General James Maxwell couldn't strike west. Besides, Libya had nothing to offer save tying down the enemy. An exchange of telegrams with London shortly after war broke out confirmed that "(I) would be doing (my) job as long as I prevented Cairo, Alexandria, and the Pyramids from coming under Italian control", as he recalled later. The token Western Frontier Force, commanded by Major General Alexander Wallace, would hold the line.

    Both sides, however, would fight a fierce war... just not against one another.

    The story of the Senussi order is one of the more remarkable ones in Africa's long colonial history. They were founded by an Algerian exile distraught over France's occupation of his homeland, and their early mission was spiritual purification in perceived atonement. Many such radical movements were put down (such as the Mahdi of Sudan) or died with their founder, yet the Senussi lived on in the desert. Relations with the Ottomans in Libya remained strong as antipathy for the encroaching French and British grew. Italy's takeover of Libya in 1912 made them the prime enemy, and any power which could help evict them was a potential ally.

    Italian entry into the Central Powers complicated the situation. Turkish participation in the Central Powers made the Senussi look favourably on them, and Germany had considered working with them against the British in Egypt. Yet Germany had gone to great lengths to woo Italy, and wasn't about to throw it all away for minor distractions in Africa. Just as Austria-Hungary had sacrificed pride and border adjustments, Germany was forced to shelve plans for allying with the Senussi. Ambassadors in Constantinople respectfully suggested that the Ottoman Sultan tone down his calls for a Senussi revolt but his religious charges ignored him. The Senussi saw Italy as the ultimate enemy, with France and Britain not far behind. Backing the Italians made Germany part of the problem; Turkey's quiet acceptance of the alliance diminished their stature. With their enemies fighting one another, the Senussi were left without natural allies.

    They had to take the offensive.

    Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi (3) declared jihad on the fourteenth of November 1915. With the Europeans "consumed by fratricide", they would be too distracted to offer protracted resistance. His people would fight the Italians and Anglo-French in equal measure, something a lesser man would've thought impossible. Yet their enemies were weak and a long way from home while the Senussi were in their native country. Most importantly, if their religion was true, their professed spiritual purity would assure victory.

    The next eighteen months saw brutal desert war barely connected to the European fighting. Senussi cavalry cut across both Libya and Egypt, attacking towns and outposts on either side of the border with equal impunity. As their ancestors had raided Byzantine forts centuries ago, the Senussi would attack oasis towns or border posts, kill the white men, and make off with their loot. Word quickly spread that Muslim bystanders had no need to fear, and local reactions ranged from concern for one's safety to active encouragement. Many allied with the Senussi out of fear, yet others shared their deep religious convictions. When attacked, the Senussi melted into the desert, scarcely damaged. Guns had replaced swords, but the tactics hadn't changed since the first jihad twelve hundred years ago.

    Britain and Italy both initially suspected the other of setting the Senussi against them, but soon realised how little this had to do with the European War. In many places, alliances of convenience superseded the state of war. Italian soldiers saw the British as cowardly misers without respect for foreign honour; Britain saw the Italians as backstabbers. Yet all were Christian white men who believed in certain rules of war. Their war was between governments- Sonnino versus Asquith, Vittorio Emmanuel versus George V. Both followed international law and knew once the shooting stopped, both sides knew they'd have to live with each other. The war with the Senussi was something else. It was a fight against fanatics who wanted to destroy them and their religion and who would show no quarter. Unofficial ceasefires and working agreements overcame the state of war. Officers on the ground shed no tears when the Senussi destroyed an enemy camp, but they would often shelter the survivors who fled into the desert, sometimes even shipping them back to their own side. Aerial reports of Senussi movements sometimes found their way into enemy hands. All this violated doctrine and orders from higher-ups, and many were court-martialed during and after the war for fraternising with the enemy. Yet junior officers understood which enemy mattered more, and that neither European state could dislodge the other. Britain's Commission Report on the North African War (1920) tacitly acknowledged as much. While Luigi Cadorna reportedly quipped that "any man sharing a cigarette with the inglesi just because both are white should be left in the sun!", neither he nor the senior officers in Tripoli could mount a witch-hunt. The Anglo-Italian ceasefire left the frontlines in approximately the same place as October 1915. Libya's border with Egypt was subsequently codified, largely in Britain's favour. (4)

    The war in Libya outlasted the fighting in Europe by several months. Britain sought to carry on the war in the peripheries after the collapse of France; Italy had no choice but to keep defending their last colony. The first draft of the Treaty of Valencia proposed a formal anti-Senussi alliance, but it was stricken. Demobilisation slowed the fight, yet by spring 1917 the Senussi were in retreat. Rapprochement lay far in the future yet, both recognised their common interest here. Letting the Senussi conquer Tripoli would only encourage them to invade Egypt. The Senussi were also moving in a new direction. Idrīs al-Sanūsī (5) assumed de facto command in early 1917 over his ailing cousin, signing cease-fires with both Italy and Britain within months.

    North Africa played little strategic role in the war, yet its political importance is often understated. British inability to march on Libya left it the sole Central Powers colony to survive the war. This contrasted favourably with how Germany's empire had seemingly crumbled- a rare bright spot for disaffected Italians. The fact that the Senussi had laid down their arms willingly rather than being conquered kept them politically and militarily relevant after the war. Despite being enemies, Britain and Italy had affirmed their commitment to the colonial order. Memories of tacit cooperation for the greater good became a nucleus for reconciliation.

    Yet before any of this could come, there was a war in Europe to be won.

    1. Tripolitania eventually became a settler colony- and without WWII, this development will probably continue here- but three years after conquest is a bit soon.
    2. This man-- not a lot of info, alas.
    3. Ahmed Sharaf as-Senussi
    4. With Tarzibu and Al-Jawf as part of Egypt.
    5. Idrīs al-Sanūsī, king of Libya in OTL.
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    Chapter XIII- War On The Waves
  • Chapter XIII

    War On The Waves

    Prince Luigi Amedeo was a man of action. A cousin of the King, he had been born in Madrid during his father's brief tenure as King of Spain, but revolution had destroyed his chances of inheriting the throne. Luigi Amedeo had thrown himself into adventure- mountaineering in Alaska and Africa, Arctic exploring, and fighting natives in Eritrea (he had wept on hearing news of its surrender). He joined the Regia Marina, where his royal blood made him an instant vice-admiral. Regrettably, he saw no action in the Turkish war, and had spent the years since longing to make up for it. (1)

    Amedeo saw the outbreak of war as an opportunity. Glory awaited not just for Italy but for him personally- which was more important? Neutrality was thus a disappointment. Like most of his countrymen, growing offence at Britain's actions balanced out an innate dislike of Austria. Yet Amedeo knew victory would further sacro egoisimo, and allying with either Austria or Britain was a distasteful but necessary first step. He knew, too, that his deep patriotism and devotion to the Regia Marina meant he'd do his duty no matter what.

    Despite not being in government, Vice-Admiral Amedeo knew almost instantly when the decision for war was made. On the tenth of September 1915, he recieved command of the Taranto Fleet, with orders to have it ready for combat operations as soon as possible. His previous role as Inspector of Torpedo Craft- unglamorous though it was- had prepared him well for the task. In 1911, he'd ensured Italy's torpedo craft were ready for combat with the Turks, and that their officers were up to standard. Now he did the same thing on a larger scale.

    Readying a peacetime formation for war is never easy. Officers have to transition from bureaucrats to leaders. Men have to double their training and steel themselves for danger. Equipment shortages and inefficiencies can no longer be excused. Such problems are all the greater aboard ships, where a single mechanical or navigational error can doom hundreds. Amedeo quickly became aware of the deficiencies in the fleet. Though the seventh-largest in the world, much of the Regia Marina was ageing. Many battleships and cruisers were too slow for modern engagements. Damage-control and signalling procedures were particularly rusty, while many ships hadn't left port in years. (2) Amedeo pondered if he'd need armoured tugboats to drag his battleships while fighting the French.

    Reinforcements streamed in from the Adriatic, chiefly coast-defence vessels and minelayers. At the same time, Amedeo had to sacrifice some of his precious ships for the defence of Sicily and Sardinia. He understood the need without liking it. Such deployments made it obvious which side Italy would join; the only question was when the war would start. Rumours swirled about the base, yet the men had little time to worry as Amedeo drilled them around the clock. His superiors in Rome dreaded a pre-emptive Anglo-French strike, but he wasn't concerned. If the Entente wanted to charge into his home port, past his mines, into a defensively positioned fleet, they were welcome to try.

    Amedeo eagerly awaited the word... but was disappointed when it came.

    Italy's General Staff (3) hadn't consulted him on strategy. Prewar plans were automatically implemented as war neared, with only minimal review. These took caution to an extreme, reflecting paranoia of the Royal Navy. Strategic defence was the order of the day. To the General Staff, Italy's western coastline was a 4,600-mile long target for the Entente. The enemy could steam up to any of Italy's greatest cities and turn them to rubble in hours. Only a fleet in being, supplemented by mines and constant patrols, could keep them at bay. A hypothetical Austro-Italian joint fleet was abandoned after neither could agree on an acceptable commanding officer. Rather, the bulk of the Italian Navy moved to Naples, where it could best protect the western coast. Caligari, Catania, and Genoa housed smaller squadrons. The movement was complete by the twenty-ninth, when the telegram came. Combat operations would commence in twenty-four hours, and Amedeo was to expect a French sortie at any time.

    Everything disappointed Amedeo. He had imagined war as an adventure on the high seas, a chance to sail into Nice or Malta and show the world what Italy could do. Yet his predecessors had let the fleet decay, his sailors lacked training and experience, and his superiors were paranoid. So he sat in Naples, ceding the western Mediterranean and the initiative to the French, and pondered what might have been.

    He was soon to realise just how important his position was.

    Britain's weapon of choice was blockade. Just as they had with Napoleon, Britain closed off Germany's trade links with the outside world. Germany had free rein of the Baltic and could venture into the North Sea, but its markets in the Americas and Africa were gone. This cost the UK fairly little and weakened Germany's economy. As relations with Italy soured throughout the summer, British and French admirals had revised existing war plans in light of a year's fighting. One of their first additions was a plan to subject Italy to the same treatment. It soon became obvious that this would be far easier than with Germany, for one reason: Britain controlled the exits to the Mediterranean Sea. With Gibraltar and Suez denied them, Italian global shipping would wilt. An Admiralty memorandum predicted an Italian economic collapse within a year; French projections were similar. The less Britain needed to blockade Italy, the more it could keep in the North Sea.

    Yet the French still demanded British reinforcements. La Marine Nationale now had to face the Italian and Austro-Hungarian navies, while the U-boat threat could only grow. Fear of what could happen kept the admirals awake at night. U-boats operating out of Sicily could wreck shipping in the western Mediterranean, an Austro-Italian fleet could flatten Nice or Marseilles, or land on Corsica. They were transferring everything they could from Brest and Bordeaux but remained uneasy.

    Britain, however, saw little need to reinforce the Mediterranean. Even destroying the Regia Marina in pitched battle would bring them no nearer victory. Gallipoli had taught the Entente that large-scale amphibious operations were unfeasible, so there would be no landing in Sicily or the Balkans. Blockading individual Italian cities was pointless if closing Gibraltar and Suez could achieve the same effect. Keeping the Gibraltar-Malta-Cairo supply line open was sufficient, and the principal threat was U-boats, not surface ships. Proposals to recall HMS Indomitable and Indefatigable were shelved; the French had more than enough capital ships. Instead, Britain recalled destroyers from deployments around the globe. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand provided ships, as did Japan. (4) These were concentrated around Malta and in the western Mediterranean; prime targets for U-boat attack. An immense mine-laying campaign accompanied this, designed both to protect Entente possessions (Malta, Gibraltar, Corsica, and the French coast), and to cripple Austro-Italian naval movements. Defensive mining was fairly easy (even if the odd fisherman did suffer an untimely death), but operations in enemy waters proved challenging. The Tyrrhenian and southern Adriatic were unsafe for slow minesweepers, who had to operate under guard from heavier vessels. By the end of 1915, however, the waters around Italy's "toe" and "boot" were some of the most heavily mined on earth. Fishermen dared not venture out unless surrounded by minesweepers, creating fish shortages in Italy and the Dual Monarchy.

    For the Kaiserliche Marine, Italy's entry was a God-send. Admiral Hugo von Pohl conferred with his Italian opposite numbers in late September; he privately described the country as "an indestructible submarine base". Though trans-Alpine rail was in high demand, a number of U-boats travelled from Kiel to Naples throughout the autumn. The existing U-boat facilities in Trieste and Zadar were closed, though Austria-Hungary's few submarines continued to use them. Von Pohl's chief of staff Wilhelm Michaelis (5) became commander-in-chief of a joint fleet with an Italian subordinate commander. Italy's submarine fleet and doctrine were unimpressive, and German command would hopefully enhance efficiency. Operations began in earnest in January 1916, concentrated south of the Balearic Islands. Neutral- read American- shipping was less common in the Mediterranean than the Atlantic, so the rules of the sea were soon abandoned. Only Spain was seriously affected, and its wishes counted for little in Berlin. German and Italian submarines struck without warning, leaving survivors to fend for themselves. Attempted submarine attacks on the Strait of Gibraltar ended with the U-boats striking mines, yet the risk to Entente shipping remained serious. Both the Gibraltar-Malta-Cairo line and French communications with Africa remained perilous for the rest of the war. Britain would fight the Central Powers to a standstill in the Western Mediterranean, neither side scoring a decisive advantage. As Germany's noose on the Home Islands tightened, however, Britain left its forces there to fend for themselves, and the Central Powers gradually developed an edge. The last kill of the Mediterranean war- the Canadian torpedo boat HMCS Tuna- went below the waves three hours before the Anglo-German ceasefire.

    If Britain was content to keep the enemy at bay, France wanted to take the fight to them.

    With the Regia Marina only a few miles from their coast, it was natural for France to see them as the greater threat. Even if they groused about "l'apathie anglais" behind closed doors, the French admirals admitted Britain was keeping the Western Mediterranean open for them and securing their coasts. Gradually, French paranoia dimmed. An amphibious attack could still come anywhere, but it would have to fight past mines, their fleet, and fortifications. It was time to think about attacking, throwing the Italians on the backfoot. Vice-Admiral Paul Choceprat proposed a strike into the Tyrrhenian to draw out Italy's fleet. Superior technology and training would make the resultant battle a French victory. The Supreme Naval Council assented, granting Chocerat command of the fleet. He vowed "to return with all the glory of Napoleon, or not at all!"

    Anchors were raised on the third of December.

    France's Mediterranean fleet was impressive. Gallipoli had given its men valuable experience; its officers had proven their adaptability and competence, and the men knew their duties. Despite design flaws, the four Courbet-class battleships- Courbet, France, Jean Bart, and Paris- were modern and strong, as were the six Danton-class. Cruisers and destroyers were plentiful. Though the Italians had a slight numerical advantage, the Entente had other resources in the Mediterranean to replace losses. If this battle went well, only the decrepit Habsburg dreadnoughts would be left. What Choceprat lacked in combat experience, he made up for in confidence.

    The Mediterranean Fleet descended on Caligari in the small hours of 4 December. A small squadron had protected the Sardinian capital since war began, but had faced nothing worse than a few submarines. Against ten battleships, they were helpless. To his credit, the Italian commander resisted valiantly. He knew what the French aimed to do to Caligari, and that he was powerless to stop it, but couldn't run up the white flag. He couldn't trade so many innocents for himself. Instead, he went down with his cruiser after fifteen minutes. After two destroyers slipped below the waterline, the last ships scuttled; the luckless survivors spent the rest of the war in a Corsican POW camp.

    Choceprat's fleet closed in on Cagliari. Twelve-inch guns, four on each Courbet-class, did most of the heavy work despite a slow rate of fire (loading such big shells wasn't easy). (6) In a hurry to get them launched, the designers had overlooked faults in the elevation system: consequently the twelve-inchers could only reach a 12-degree angle. This forced them to draw closer to Cagliari than Choceprat would've liked; he rightly feared Italian harbour defences. The handful of coastal guns lacked the range and power to kill, and quickly succumbed to the 12-inchers, but mines were the real threat. Choceprat had failed to bring along minesweepers, forcing him to put destroyers in the lead. Voltigeur struck a mine at 0513 which blew off her bow and set her ablaze. She began taking on water and soon capsized, fortunately quenching the flames before they could reach the boiler or ammunition. Half her crew escaped. From the bridge of Courbet, Choceprat called a halt. He would have preferred to fire from even closer range but couldn't risk losing another ship. His fleet formed an arc around Cagliari; destroyers and cruisers in the front, battleships in the rear.

    Cagliari took a beating. Having been awoken by the sounds of battle, the people panicked. Some took shelter in basements or buildings they deemed sturdy. Others tried to flee, clogging up the roads outside the city. Since the civilian docks were adjacent to the naval base, they took as much damage. Small fishing-boats were smashed; jetties and seaside shops set ablaze. Seagulls flapped away in blind panic, their nests suddenly smashed. At 0531, Choceprat ordered his 12-inchers, with their longer range, to fire deeper into the city while the lesser guns mopped up the harbour. Heavy shells flew into the centre of town, bursting in squares and above homes. Brick and limestone proved defenceless against metal. Statues were shattered, body parts flying in all directions. Fountains burst, causing floods and leaving them useless for the fire department. The town hall's ceiling was knocked in; a falling beam killed the Mayor at his desk. Women and children ran from their ruined homes weeping, bandages dangling from fresh wounds. Men frantically searched the rubble, hoping against hope. Old men knew their time had come. It was slaughter without purpose, punishing the innocent Cagliarians for nothing.

    Across the Tyrhennian in Naples, Vice-Admiral Amedeo received a frantic wireless message. His hour had come.

    1. An interesting man overall.
    2. The Benedetto Brin explosion is butterflied because it was the work of Austrian agents, but something analogous will happen.
    3. Did Italy have something akin to Britain's Admiralty or was it all under the General Staff?
    4. All OTL, just more so.
    5. Wilhelm Michaelis
    6. The Courbets and their primary armament.
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    Chapter XIII.1: In Pursuit of Justice
  • Chapter XIII.I

    In Pursuit of Justice

    Standing on the bridge, Mediterranean salt spray blowing in his face, danger just around the corner. Not so different from being five thousand feet up Karakoum, or the thick of an Arctic winter. If I can get myself out of a land where the sea freezes around my ship, I can do alright three hundred miles from home. He wiggled the two stumps on his right hand- an adventure behind each.

    Vice-Admiral Prince Luigi Amedeo smiled. "No sign of them?"

    "Negative!" The first mate lowered his telescope, view clear in the still Mediterranean evening. As far as technology had come in three hundred years, finding the enemy on the empty high seas was hard. "Should I send a ship-to-shore back to Naples?"

    Amedeo nodded. That was something he hadn't had as a young man. Being able to talk to the officers back in Naples without telegraph wires was like magic. Of course, the French could do the same exact thing with their men in Nice. And the people of Cagliari had died no matter how fast their plea for help had travelled. He remembered the stench of smoke wafting from the island, the stone-faced reports from the seaplane pilot who'd flown over the city... "Si, signore. Tell them our search was fruitless today." Disgust piled up in his stomach. What justice was there in the world, if the French could destroy innocent Cagliari and get away scot-free? If I do not secure justice, it will never be done. "And tell them we'll keep looking and chasing until word comes otherwise." Amedeo went belowdecks, forced down dinner, and tried to sleep.

    Scout cruiser captain coming over, very good. He's seen something.
    Cagliari dancing, going to Mass, going to market, children playing-- my God what's that?
    Screaming screaming, all of a sudden everything falls down, little child in the street, his eyes wide.
    The rest of the world doesn't know yet. To the French it's just a job. But to Cagliari the day of judgement has come. And they are found wanting.
    And he couldn't protect them.
    Seaplane buzzing overhead, controlled- nonono!

    Amedeo woke with a yelp. The cabin seemed very dark, yet he dared not get out of bed to turn on the light. If he slept, the nightmare would return. Amedo breathed slowly, reminding himself he was aboard the Conte di Cavour, the French were nowhere in sight, and it wasn't his fault. Animal fear faded, and he carefully lit a candle, then a cigar. It was only ten-thirty.

    Someone knocked, making him jump. He hurriedly threw on a shirt. No need to fear, remember you are safe. "Enter!"

    "Sorry to disturb you, Vice-Admiral", the first mate said, "but we'd like you on the bridge. Scout cruiser Quarto has just returned from reconaissance, as you requested. The captain's seen something."

    Amedeo swallowed his fear as he walked into the night.

    "Found the French." The captain was grinning like a schoolboy, despite the heavy bags under his eyes. "Not easy, Vice-Admiral, but I did it." Amedeo nodded. "Heading north by northwest at about... twenty knots. Probably trying to get home tomorrow even if it costs fuel. Doubt we could catch them now. We would have to move just as fast and chase them to their coast..." The captain shrugged. "Permission to return to my ship?" They exchanged salutes, and Amedeo went to the map room, lost in thought.

    Could he catch up to the French tonight? How much fuel would it cost? How would his gunners, unused to night battles, perform in pitch darkness? Could his ships communicate without being able to see semaphore flags? Their men would be tired after a day's sailing... but so would his. Eighteen hours ago they had been in Naples when the word came: the French were pounding hell out of Cagliari and they needed to sortie immediately. If he waited until morning to close the gap, where would the French be? Amedeo stared at the map, pencil and ruler in hand. Right now, friendly Sardinia and hostile Corsica were equidistant. In ten hours they'd be sailing past Ajaccio, the south of France practically in sight. Doubtless the French would hug the Corsican coast, just in case they were being pursued. Continuing the chase ran the risk of striking a mine or three. And yet...

    If they get to port they are home safe. And there will be no justice for Cagliari. Amedo could taste the cordite, hear the shells crashing and klaxons blowing. And perhaps fifty years hence, they would remember him as the man who won the Battle of the Ligurian Sea, Italy's greatest naval victory in centuries. But it wasn't a game. Five thousand feet up a mountain, a single slip could mean death. Here, it could mean death for everyone. The men of the Regia Marina didn't deserve to die just because it was honourable, or glorious. This war had seen too much of that already. But what if you really can win? If the French got away, Amedo would spend the rest of his life wondering what might have been. After a few moments, he stood up.

    He would spend the rest of the night on the bridge, and whatever happened tomorrow would happen for the glory of Italy.
    Chapter XIII.2: The Battle Of The Ligurian Sea
  • Chapter XIII.II

    The Battle Of The Ligurian Sea

    7 DEC 1915
    0400 HOURS


    Vice-Admiral Prince Luigi Amedo stepped away from the wireless telegraph. "That should keep Naples happy." He walked to the bridge.

    Sweaty men and noisy machinery crowded the bridge, but it was all in order. He exchanged salutes with the Conte di Cavour's commanding officer. "When can we expect to close in on les ranes?" (1)

    "Sooner rather than later, sir." The commanding officer swallowed hard, his eyes darting back and forth. He was a good man- he'd even fought the Turks- but this was something no one had ever faced. He led Amedo to a map on the wall. "French last spotted here an hour ago, after which we began accelerating. At our current speed, we should overtake them in... twenty-five minutes, give or take. All my men are at general quarters; I trust the other commanders have done the same."

    "Very good." Amedeo's smile hid his own nerves. "And yes, all the others are ready. I would have it no other way. We are formed up nicely in a column- I ought to ask someone in the rearguard to check on that- just over a mile long. Nothing to do, then, but wait." A bit late to turn back now, eh? "Get me a cup of coffee and something to write on." He collapsed in the commander's chair, resting his arm on a metal pipe.

    Nothing to do but wait. Despite the early hour, his eyes were wide-open. His war was only eighteen hours old- still fresh enough to be an adventure. Eighteen hours ago he'd been a uniformed bureaucrat when the message came: the French were destroying Cagliari. Rumour had it half the city was dead- probably false, but a measure of how bad it was. And like a knight sent to rescue his lady, he was off to avenge the crime. Where his ancestors- nine hundred years of Savoyards!- had carried sword and lance, he had ten battleships of varying quality and a myriad of lighter vessels. It is a great adventure, really, though the crime I am avenging is sickening. No less than in the Arctic or up some mountain, it is all in my hands. Amedeo smiled. It was an enormously complex problem, with his honour at stake, but one he could solve. He whistled a few bars of the national anthem despite himself before remembering where he was. The commanding officer chuckled. "I feel that way as well, Vice-Admiral." They were all in this together.

    One of the ensigns yelled. "Commander!" All looked up. "French closing in!" Sure enough, grey silhouettes appeared on the horizon, growing closer by the moment. The big Courbets and Dantons looked like mountains; the cruisers and destroyers were the foothills. This is what the people of Cagliari saw, he fumed, at the end. The grey hulks nearing, and nothing they could do. Amedeo thanked God for the armour and guns between him and the French, but a moment later, felt naked. All that armour and all those guns were necessary- nowhere would take more fire than the bridge of a flagship. He felt a sudden urge to run, to hide in the galley or the barracks, to leap into a lifeboat or toss off his uniform. It was all a mistake, he wanted to cry, this war is all wrong! Steel melted honour.

    "Good luck everyone." Klaxons hooted and men ran about on deck. "Fire at will!" A deafening roar tore through the bridge as thirteen twelve-inch guns opened fire. (2) Amedeo clutched his ears, wincing, and thirty seconds later they opened up again. "Hold position for now", he called. His main armament had two miles more range than the enemy- let them advance under fire. Amedeo counted six more shots from each gun before the French opened up. He was too far away to see the flash and noise on the bridge blotted out the whistle. The enemy 12-incher crashed into the sea a bare fifteen yards from Conte di Cavour. For a foolish moment, Amadeo wondered what it was. Under fire now for the first time in years. He'd forgotten how exciting it could be in the heat of the moment. "All ships, stay in formation and close range!", he yelled. The wireless telegrapher began clacking away, but every commander behind him knew the plan. If he could cut across the enemy 'T', he'd have double firepower and would soon win the day. Conte di Cavour manoeuvred furiously, trying to cut across the enemy lines while defending its own flank.

    A deafening explosion shook the waves and sent green rings before Amedeo's eyes. He blinked hard, steadying himself against a metal pipe, and looked out. A fireball rose from the waves at two o'clock, billowing black smoke hundreds of feet into the sky. The bodies looked like ants from this height. A lieutenant walked in a moment later, clipboard in hand. "That was the Indomito", he said breathlessly. "One clean shot and- no more! Everything consistent with an ammunition explosion."

    "Dio mio." Indomito was a big destroyer- he'd known the captain personally- and it was gone in the blink of an eye. The glass on the bridge suddenly seemed very thin. "Just stay in position, try to cut across them." He could see the French circling away, trying to do the same. Nothing for it except to keep moving. The deadly circle spun for several minutes more, all the while trading shots. A particularly hard one struck the starboard, shoving everyone aboard. Amedeo cursed and grabbed a pipe to steady himself. Emergency alarms blared, and damage-control men sprinted on the deck. He turned to the lieutenant. "Where did that hit us?"

    "Starboard, obviously, sir. Damage-control men are doing their work now, and until I get their analysis there's nothing more I can say." Amedeo nodded, hating how little he could do. Not as bad as that. It simply means if I am killed we'll lose regardless.

    A lieutenant, jg, cried out: "We're listing starboard, Vice-Admiral!" He stared with horror at the panel of instruments before him as Amedeo walked over. "Not by much- six point o-one degrees- but it's there. The result of taking on water from that last hit."

    "Merda", Amedeo whispered. "Someone tell damage control to hurry up!" They'd drilled this for weeks in Naples- why was it taking so long now? Of course, if they hadn't drilled, how long would it have taken? "Where are we with the French? Close to cutting them off?"

    "Yes, Vice-Admiral", another lieutenant said. "With Benedetto Brin still behind us, we have a chance to cut them off there." He pointed at a gap, perhaps four hundred yards wide, between two French battleships. "They've been slow and we could cut through. We would have to move fast, though. And I don't know how well our destroyer escorts would do."

    At last, some bloody good news. "Alright. Never mind the escorts- if they cannot keep up, we'll do without them. This is our chance- accelerate to attack speed!" Conte di Cavour charged ahead at twenty-four knots (the hit to its starboard having slowed it down) with the rest of the battleships behind it. The destroyer escorts steadied themselves for a fight they'd probably lose. They were metal sacrifices, dying so the big ships might live. Amedeo grabbed the microphone. "This is the Vice-Admiral", he said over the din of engines and guns. "We fight for Italy, for honour, and for Cagliari." Like hell. We fight for survival. We're animals with big guns. "Good luck everyone... and do your duty!" The grey hulks drew nearer. From this distance, they looked just like his own ships, with their own lines and white-clad men running about. And at the moment, he only had to worry about two. This would be easy.

    The Italian battleships crossed the 'T' between the French ships Condorcet and Voltaire. Both were of the Danton-class, France's second-heaviest ship type. Engine troubles had delayed Voltaire, but the Condorcet's commander had refused to slow down. Now, six dreadnoughts and a slew of lighter craft were about to make them pay for that mistake. Both sides fired at point-blank range, less than a quarter-mile. The twelve-inchers on both sides could ordinarily fire two shots a minute; the crews managed to get off three. Heavy cartridges crashed to the floor, and shell-jerkers frantically loaded the next. Every shot fired gave the enemy a chance to deduce their position and shoot back, but they couldn't care. Shells sailed across the open ocean, and punched their way through sheet metal before exploding. Men screamed as metal and flesh were thrown back on the deck. Fires spread across all the ships, but the French caught the worst of it. Though each Italian ship took fire from both Condorcet and Voltaire, they were only under attack for a few moments before passing through. The French ships had to face every Italian vessel, and could only use their forward and rear guns respectively. Voltaire died first. Its forward gun was killed at 0521; ten minutes later the Dante Alighieri put two twelve-inch shells into its bridge. Voltaire sat in the water like a decapitated giant. Junior officers gave the command to abandon ship as the other French tried to move around it. The French admiral ordered a torpedo boat to scuttle it.

    "Very good." Exhausted but relieved, Amedeo collapsed in his chair, panting. "Damage report."

    "We took three hits, Vice-Admiral, and that list is getting worse. But it is still manageable." Another officer walked up a moment later. "Benedetto Brin took more of a pounding- a lucky shot knocked out one of her main guns. And some of our destroyer escorts got picked off. But we must have damaged them very severely."

    "Buona. Now we do it again- circle round and try to cut them off elsewhere, preferably to the north. We can't let them escape back to Nice."

    Conte di Cavour made a hard left turn to go north. As it did, more water flowed into its starboard 'wound', tilting it even further. It slowed from eighteen knots to sixteen despite the engine room's best efforts. As their leader slowed, so did the rest of the Italian fleet. The French admiral noticed this, and ordered all ships to sprint towards the lead vessel. Those who'd been ahead of Condorcet followed him, those cut off behind the stricken Voltaire moved in the opposite direction. But the Italians only saw the first column.

    "Move faster, accidenti!", cried Amedeo. (3) "We have to cut them off again before they do it to us!" It would come down to a few hundred yards this time. Whoever ran the race would strike with double firepower. His heart raced, and fear crept in with frustration. They might not make it. Was it such a good idea to lead from the front? He could have put the flagship in the middle, sheltered by the other battleships. Come on, snap out of it. No time to fail now! The French were streaming into view, the massive Jean Bart at the column's head. Their twelve-inch guns were no different from his, but they looked like the biggest things in the world.

    We've lost the race, accidenti. Now he would have to bear what he'd done to Voltaire. "Hard to port!", he cried. If the two columns ran parallel, they'd at least have equal firepower. He turned to face his bridge crew. "Prepare for attack!"

    The Italian manoeuvre was successful. Conte di Cavour took a beating, but managed to turn ninety degrees. Both columns were running parallel in opposite directions, firing at point-blank range. Explosions shook the bridge, but Amedeo could see the French were getting it just as bad. Have to break off after this, he thought. Enough is enough. The battle seemed like a draw... when more French ships appeared out of nowhere.

    The second column had arrived.

    "Evasive action!', cried Amedeo, but it was too late. The second column crossed the 'T' on him, pounding Conte di Cavour with their side guns while the first column kept doing its dirty work. A terrific explosion threw all aboard to the floor and sent smoke rising into the dawn sky. As Amedeo got to his feet, the Conte di Cavour slowed to a halt. "What the hell? Get us mov-accidenti!" He clenched his teeth against another blast.

    "Steering's going, sir!", cried one ensign. Another yelled out, "Engine room took a hit! And that list's only getting worse! We-" Another blast threw him to the floor. Slowly, inexorably, the Conte di Cavour began tilting. Pens and clipboards slid off desks and tables, men on the deck began, slipping, and Amedeo clung to a metal pipe. "We're going down, sir!"

    "Abandon ship, get to the lifeboats!" Half the fucking boats will be submerged, anyway. Discipline dissolved. Sailors fled from the bridge, dashing towards the port lifeboats. A melee broke out as to who would get in. Gunshots rang out. Men cursed and cried, some clinging to the boats as they were lowered. Those on deck were already ankle-deep in water. "Shoot through the glass, break the windows, and get ready to swim!" It was the only thing he could think of.

    "Aren't you coming, Vice-Admiral?", asked a lieutenant.

    "Not me. I had a duty and I failed. But I still have my honour. Go!" The French had given up shooting at Conte di Cavour. Their vessels streamed north, many billowing smoke from fresh wounds. Amedeo knew nothing about his own fleet. Was Benedetto Brin still afloat? Did its rear-admiral have common sense enough to flee? Conte di Cavour capsised. Amedeo slid down the floor and landed hard on the starboard wall. Water trickled in through the smashed window.

    The last adventure, he thought calmly. He'd seen too many good men die in the mountains, in the Arctic, in Africa. He'd always known it would be him one day. At least it's honourable. His feet were wet.

    "The Lord ruleth me, and I shall want nothing." He breathed slowly. "He hath set me in a place of pasture."

    I'm sorry, Cagliari. I tried for you.

    "He hath brought me up on the waters of refreshment." Amedeo didn't appreciate the irony.

    Good I saw the chaplain before I left. Surely, to kill in battle is no sin?

    "He hath converted my soul. He hath led me on the path of refreshment for Thy name's sake."

    He began treading water. "For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death..."

    A pipe burst. Metal fragments flew about the bridge, landing in the water.

    "...I will fear no evils for Thou art with me." Water reached his chest.

    What's the point? Why struggle when death is assured?

    "Thou rod and thy staff..." He tasted salt water.

    I'm going to die here. Forty-two years were about to come to an end. The twenty-second Psalm (4) seemed meaningless. He tilted his head to the sky, but all he saw was the opposite grey wall. His head brushed against a desk, and he tried to push off. Maybe I can still swim, maybe- He swallowed a big gulp of water and was submerged.


    1. Frogs- j'apologise au mes liseurs françaises.
    2. The Conte di Cavour used Model 1909 guns; the Courbets Model 1906. Hence the slight Italian advantage.
    3. Damnit.
    4. Going by the Douay-Rheims translation here, with slightly different numberings; as a Catholic translation it's closest to what an Italian would've used.
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