Relations between the Army and the Navy in Italy in the 80s

(To Philip Del Monte)
27/03/20

The 80s of the 80th century ended the immediately "post-Risorgimento" phase for Italy and its Armed Forces. Never as in the XNUMXs, in the face of the objective inefficiencies of the previous decade and the economic hardships of the following one, the Italian military were able to have substantial budgets and the active support of the policy for the modernization and transformation of a fundamental tool for any country that aspired to play a role of great power in the mature phase of European imperialism.

If in 1878 at the Berlin Congress (opening image) Italy had seen its own recognized status of "big" within the European concert while not achieving significant diplomatic results, in 1882 with the signing of the Triple Alliance which saw Rome allied to Berlin and Vienna, it had guaranteed - within a continental blockade - its own security in the face of France.

The choice to link one's destiny to that of the central Powers, if on the one hand it guaranteed Italy a certain security in Europe, on the other it risked frustrating its nascent ambitions in the Mediterranean and of this the most prudent and avant-garde sectors of opinion public, generally linked to the shipbuilding industry and to the geographical and exploration societies, had fully realized: the alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary did not offer the young Kingdom of Italy that ample room for maneuver which instead he aspired to conduct his own autonomous Mediterranean policy. Concrete examples of this limit for Rome were the renunciation of deploying a military contingent in Egypt alongside the British in 1882 and the fear of a possible French occupation of the Moroccan coast during the Moroccan crisis of 1884.

The then Foreign Minister Pasquale Stanislao Mancini was forced to renounce the Egyptian adventure - despite London's guarantee of a future partition of Egypt and therefore with the possibility of radically changing the weight of Italy in the Mediterranean - after alternating events to maintain the balance of the recently signed Triple Alliance; just as two years later, although the Consulta had asked the ministers of war and navy to prepare plans for the occupation of the Tripolina coast in response to any French actions, it was preferred to avoid such a move since the Triplice did not guarantee the Italians - as structured in the first treaty - the support of the Austro-German allies in Mediterranean matters.

In this context, it is essential to analyze the relationship between the Army and the Navy, since for a possible "Mediterranean policy" of Italy, the military and maritime instrument would have been of great importance, and the tasks would have been rethought on land. In those years, the Navy had developed a modernization program that made the great battleships its fulcrum, hence great advantages for the national shipbuilding industry and for that of steel - in which the Army was also interested - with the construction of a large factory like that of Terni.

The strengthening of the Navy was equivalent, for the Italian ruling class, to a "shortcut" to achieve that status of great power which was sought and to guarantee national interests in the face of the muscular policies of the most direct rivals who in those years were fulfilling : with the Egyptian expedition and the reissue of the "gunboat policy" in the port of Alexandria in 1882, Britain had sanctioned its interest in full accessibility for its Mediterranean trade as well as its interest in keeping the eastern waters of the Mediterranean under close control Mare Nostrum; the French in 1881 had occupied Tunisia at the expense of Italy and had clear aims on Morocco with a view to mortgaging control of the western Mediterranean.

In the face of this, Italy seemed unable to guarantee the freedom of its trade in the "home garden" - hence the strong pressure of the sectors of the Merchant Navy to the government for the granting of large sums to the Navy for extraordinary modernization investments. - and therefore to assert its right to Mediterranean power toimperium maris obtinendo.

A possible strengthening of the Italian Navy was also viewed with suspicion by the ally Austria-Hungary, hostile to the foreign naval presence in the Adriatic, harbinger of possible political as well as commercial ambitions in the Balkans, considered by Vienna as its own exclusive area of ​​influence . The greatest danger for Italy was, however, represented by France - and the Triplice had been stipulated precisely in an anti-French function - capable of projecting its land and sea power directly into Italian territory. Among the officers of the Italian Navy in those years the British offensive strategy of the British made its way blue water school that is, the search for the opposing fleet on the high seas for the decisive confrontation, putting an end to the dominance of the "attendists" supporters of the fleet in power who had mastered the post-1866 traumatic years. The fears of a French amphibious offensive in the Tyrrhenian led the Army to judge severely the Navy's offensive intentions, still wrongly seen as the "younger sister" of the Earth's force and therefore unable to counter the powerful transalpine fleet.

For General Cesare Ricotti Magnani (pictured) "the real task of the Navy should be to avoid fighting and to pose a constant threat" to avoid French landings along the Lazio or Tuscan coasts. When Ricotti returned to head the Ministry of War (1884-1887) his political-strategic line on the theme was aimed at strengthening the primacy of the Army over the Navy although some of the officers of the General Staff had supported the need to reconsider, on an equal footing, the relationship between the land and sea components of the national armed forces. The thesis that the Navy's plans should be supported by a more aggressive strategy than the Army - and therefore move the main theater of possible actions against France from the Alpine arc, which would have served as a "defensive block", to the Mediterranean - went most of the "offensive" officers but was strongly opposed by the minister.

The "maneuvers with cadres" and the exercises planned and directed by the Chief of Staff, General Enrico Cosenz, in those years, regardless of the scenario chosen, always provided for a French landing along the Tyrrhenian coast with the need for the Italian forces to resist the offensive opponent's collision in the heart of the Peninsula and having to maneuver pending reinforcements.

A nightmare scenario with which the General Staff aimed to prepare the actual officers of the Corps and those destined elsewhere but which highlighted the general distrust of the Army towards the Navy which, in these exercises, was always considered "defeat on the high seas "from the French counterpart.

The coasts were therefore defenseless and the French could have attempted landings in the south (exercise 1880), between Naples and Gaeta (exercise 1881) or, even, make a double landing in Orbetello and a much more dangerous one between Rome and Civitavecchia with the possibility of to focus directly on the capital or to break the Italian defense mechanism in two by occupying Mount Amiata (exercise 1882).

In 1883 the deputy commander of the General Staff, General Agostino Ricci, had first experimented with the defense of the Florence-Viareggio road to protect the strategic Florence-Pistoia railway and then, during the combined maneuvers between the Army and the Navy carried out around the Gulf of Naples , theorising to use the Italian ship to attack the French convoys during the landing operations, he had equally urged the Navy not to carry out attacks that had a purpose other than that of delaying (not blocking) the enemy landing.

In November 1884 the "maneuvers with cadres" of the General Staff had been carried out with the aim of testing the possibility of detaching substantial forces from Rome and sending them to the Alban Hills in order to face the French attack following an undisturbed landing.

In 1885 at Lake Maccarese all the logistical details of a defense in depth of the capital were analyzed by the officers of the General Staff and the following year, assuming that Frosinone was already occupied after an enemy landing in the Terracina area, the way to stem the effects of a second French landing near Civitavecchia.

The 1886 was entirely dedicated to the analysis of an Italian defensive-counter-offensive response always in the hypothesis of a French landing while the following year on the proposal of General Baldassarre Orero, the "maneuvers of cadres" concentrated on the need to free the port of La Spezia occupied by the French, as well as the aspiring officers of the General Staff, for their final admission exam had been asked to work on a defensive plan in case the enemy had carried out a huge operation with multiple landings converging on Genzano and from there, directly against Rome.

The concerns of the General Staff, as already mentioned, were due to the general distrust of the Navy's military capabilities which, in all the hypothetical scenarios, was given for defeat and never capable of providing a contribution to the defense of the national territory.

The debate ignited again, both within the technical commissions and in the military press, about the fortification system (the most famous example remains the entrenched camp in Rome) of the hinterland, the result not so much of a strategic conviction rooted in military circles as to the usefulness of the field fortifications, but rather the preconception - not supported by factual data - that the coast would have been indefensible given the numerical superiority of the French fleet.

The reasoning in question was probably also dictated by the "numerism" of Ricotti and his - indeed few but influential - supporters while the offensivists grouped around the magazine The Italian army had quite another conception of the role of the Navy and the contribution that it, both in the political and military spheres, it could have given Italy.

The two strategic theses on the Navy could have different political outlets: either the function of "alternate" of the Navy was supported militarily and financially and therefore the strategy of the fleet in power o the requests of the youngest and most enterprising cadres of the General Staff were accepted and it was opted to divert large funds to the shipbuilding industry to complete the ambitious plan of rearmament and expansion of the Navy so as to put it in a position to face and defeat the French fleet on the high seas and allow the Army to immediately go on the offensive with the maximum available strength. Tertium non datur.

Yet the naval law of 1886 left the matter unsolved without giving strategic directives, as it was in the political-administrative practice of the then prevailing transformism. Both the Prime Minister Agostino Depretis and the ministers of the War and the Navy Cesare Ricotti Magnani and Benedetto Brin (photo), preferred to "vivacchiare" in the shadow of the large amounts allocated without however deciding how to use them and, indeed, "repalling" millions of lire now for this now for that provision without solving the problems of the Army and Navy.

It was General Agostino Ricci to highlight the absurdity of the situation by proposing to the Chamber, during the discussion on the budget of the Navy for the year 1885, to allocate a large sum for the needs of the Army so as to resolve once and for all problems related to both the construction of new battleships and the defense of an important arsenal such as that of La Spezia abandoning the sad practice of allocations made with the dropper and, moreover, ex post.

Ricci was an Army officer who had always been interested in the development of the Navy as a projection force and as an effective support tool for land operations; Convinced supporter of Italy's Mediterranean policy, the deputy commander of the Corps of Staff was of the idea that a real iron ring that will suffocate us and that we will have to break should not be "formed around us, in the Mediterranean and in the Adriatic by force, a day in which we will feel inclined to expand "by gathering the aspirations and ideas of those who, military and political, had great power ambitions for Italy.

The colonial expedition of Massaua in 1885 (photo) seemed to give reason to the offensiveists with an active collaboration between land and naval forces, at least until Colonel Tancredi Saletta came into conflict with Rear Admiral Raffaele Noce. While expressing doubts about the real Italian capabilities of being able to maintain a land and naval contigent in the Horn of Africa without having the possibility of projection in the Mediterranean, the high commanders of Rome noted the good "interforce" test carried out in completely new and difficult conditions.

The Army thus consolidated its order, developing a new offensive doctrine taking into consideration the use of forces in theaters far from national borders; the Navy increased its fleet and saw the financial appropriations increase in its favor with a growth rate higher than that of the Earth's counterpart (although those of the Army remained far more substantial in quantitative terms).

When in 1887 Ricotti and Brin presented a joint bill to assign 15 million apiece for the Army and Navy, what was defined by many as "military opposition" launched its arrows against the "Siamese ministers" highlighting how political harmony between the Army and the Navy - which was the message that the ministries wanted to convey - would not have guaranteed, however, with the allocation of "ridiculous" sums, the qualitative leap necessary to take the path of power politics. Ricotti fell in 1887 on the wave of the Dogali massacre and "dismembered" his system of political and administrative power to the Ministry of War, the new management of General Ettore Bertolè Viale - direct emanation of King Umberto I and his "party of Court "- gave new impetus to offensive and a" gap "between the competences of the respective armed forces in the context of a process that would only come to fruition in the following decade.

Tracing a balance of what was done in the 80s for the development of a national political-military offensive strategy, it can be, albeit with all contradictions, positive. Despite the policy of "stop" wanted by Ricotti - more attentive to the restrictive requests of the Ministry of Finance than to those coming from the Army General Staff - and the wait-and-see of Brin, both the land and naval components of the Armed Forces radically changed their way of relating to the major political-strategic issues of the Mediterranean area which became increasingly the fulcrum of the future Italian projection, a vision also confirmed by the new colonial commitment in Massaua which by 1890 would extend to all of Eritrea.

One of the factors that had pushed the Italian government to set foot in Eritrea was that of influencing "indirectly" but massively on Mediterranean policy by trying to carve out for Rome that autonomous space of action that was denied to it, for reasons of balance, in 'Adriatic and northern Africa.

Photo: web

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