5 December 2016

Armando Diaz - First World War general

Neapolitan commander led decisive victory over Austria

General Armando Diaz in 1918
General Armando Diaz in 1918
Armando Diaz, the general who masterminded Italy's victory over Austrian forces at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto in 1918, was born on this day in 1861 in Naples.

The battle, which ended the First World War on the Italian front, also precipitated the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ending more than 200 years of Austrian control of substantial parts of Italy.

The general's announcement of the total defeat of the Austrian Army at Vittorio Veneto sparked one of the greatest moments of celebration in the history of Italy, with some Italians seeing it as the final culmination of the Risorgimento movement and the unification of Italy.

Diaz was born to a Neapolitan father of Spanish heritage and an Italian mother. He decided to pursue his ambitions to of a military career despite the preference for soldiers of Piedmontese background in newly formed Royal Italian Army.

After attending military colleges in Naples and Turin, Diaz served with distinction in the Italo-Turkish War.

In 1914, when the First World War broke out, General Count Luigi Cadorna promoted Diaz to major general and made him Chief of Operations.

Italian troops on the move in Val d'Assa during the Battle of Vittorio Veneto
Italian troops on the move in Val d'Assa
during the Battle of Vittorio Veneto
The disastrous Battle of Caporetto, which took place near what is now the Slovenian town of Kobarid, saw the Royal Italian Army overwhelmed in the face of the Austrian advance, losing 300,000 men. It spelled the end for General Cadorna and Diaz was appointed to replace him as Chief of Staff.

Diaz had to rebuild the army and restore morale after Caporetto, while at the same time making progress against the Austrians.  Yet he proved to be enormously astute. His strategy was defensive but well-timed tactical strikes inflicted significant losses on the enemy.

When the Austrians launched their next offensive, Diaz's forces repelled them and some 150,000 Austrians were killed or wounded.

Diaz was under pressure from the Allies to make gains for Italy to ensure the territorial concessions promised by France and Britain were granted but was determined to bide his time. He did not want to move until what he considered the most opportune moment against a weakened enemy in which unity was beginning to fragment.

That moment came on October 23, 1918, when the Italian offensive was launched against Austro-Hungarian forces at Vittorio - later Vittorio Veneto - the point chosen because Diaz reasoned that the capture of the town, at the midway point of the Austro-Hungarian line across northern Italy, would split the enemy forces in two and make it much more likely their resistance would crumble.

An attack was launched along a line that stretched from Venice through Treviso, Vicenza and Bormio and within seven days Vittorio Veneto had fallen. The Austrians lost 35,000 dead, 100,000 wounded and a further 300,000 to 500,000 were captured as prisoners of war.

By contrast, only 5,800 Italians were killed and 26,000 wounded.

Austro-Hungarian troops captured at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto
Austro-Hungarian troops captured
at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto
As bad as Caporetto had been for Italy, Vittorio Veneto was worse for the Austrians, and not just in terms of casualties. During the offensive, Hungary broke away from Austria and ordered the Hungarian troops on the Italian front to stop fighting.  Czechoslovakia then declared itself independent of Austria, as did Yugoslavia.

Diaz was given much of the credit and in 1921 was appointed to the Senate by King Victor Emmanuel III and given the title 'Duke of Victory'.  In the same year he became the first Italian general to be honoured with a ticker tape parade in New York City when he and other Allied commanders visited the United States.

Diaz became a somewhat controversial figure in the years after the First World War, persuading Victor Emmanuel III against the military action that might have prevented Mussolini's Fascists coming to power.

The King had wanted his soldiers to be ready to fire on Mussolini's armed Blackshirts if they went ahead with their planned 'march on Rome' in October 1922 but Diaz, aware of significant support for Mussolini's nationalistic ambitions within the army's rank and file, feared there might be a mutiny if the order was given.

As a result, the Blackshirts were unopposed and Mussolini was invited to form a government.

Diaz was then appointed Minister of War in the first Fascist cabinet and later promoted to the rank of Marshal of Italy.

He retired in 1924 in failing health and died in Rome in 1928 at the age of 66.  He was buried in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. 

Travel tip:

Vittorio Veneto is a town of some 28,000 people in the Province of Treviso, in Veneto, situated between the Piave and Livenza rivers at the foot of the mountain region known as the Prealpi.  It was formed from the joining of the communities of Serravalle and Ceneda in 1866 and named Vittorio in honour of Victor Emmanuel II.  The Veneto suffix was added in 1923 to commemorate the decisive battle.

Hotels in Vittorio Veneto by Hotels.com

The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri off Rome's Piazza della Repubblica
The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
off Rome's Piazza della Repubblica
Travel tip:

The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, which was built inside the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian off Rome's Piazza della Repubblica to a design by Michelangelo, was the official state church of the Kingdom of Italy (1870-1946). It hosts the tombs of both General Armando Diaz and Admiral Paolo Thaon di Revel, the First World War naval commander, and is today used for funerals of Italian soldiers killed abroad.

Hotels in Rome by Expedia

More reading:

Villa Giusti armistice formerly ends the First World War in Italy

Mussolini and the rise of Italian Fascism

The abdication of Victor Emmanuel III

Also on this day:

1443: Birth of Julius II - the pope who commissioned Michelangelo's greatest works

(Picture credit: Basilica by Bgabel via Wikimedia Commons)


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