As we arrive in the beginning of the 20th century, we see a new power emerge in the Mediterranean, competing against the French, British and Ottoman empires for control over African colonies. The Kingdom of Italy, reunified after centuries of division by other European states, struggled with other European powers for control of land populated by Italians, receiving Veneto in 1866 after a short but decisive war.
For most of Italy’s history until 1918, gaining Italian territory at the expense of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was its main foreign policy goal, with the Triple Alliance preventing any costly wars between the two. Regardless of how well Italy got on with the German Empire, Italy’s chilly relationship with the Austro-Hungarians put a constant strain on the strength of this alliance.
Like most European nations of the time, Italy was eager to set up colonies in Africa. However, due to Italy starting late in the Scramble for Africa and the relative weakness of its army and navy, they only managed to set up one colony: Eritrea, as well as administrative authority in Libya. A spectacularly bungled invasion of Ethiopia in the 1890s put a brief damper on Italy’s imperialistic ambitions, as was as affirming the independence of the only state in Africa not controlled by Europe.
Italy’s aggressive attempts to start a colonial empire put them into conflict with the French, who had colonial ambitions of their own in North Africa. This ended in Italy joining the Triple Alliance despite its rocky relationship with Austro-Hungary.
By 1914, Italy had made some progress into modernising her army and navy when, after the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by Serbian nationalists, World War One broke out. Italy was expected to join on the side of the Triple Alliance: Germany, Austro-Hungary and eventually the Ottoman Empire, but decided not to join the war until 1915, when the British offered Italy an entry into the war on the side of the Entente (France, UK and Russia). The British promised Italy that Austro-Hungarian territories of interest would be given to Italy after the war if they participated. Italy agreed, breaking their alliance fully with the Central Powers.
What followed was a catastrophic, bloody new front in the war between Austro-Hungary and Italy. Led by Marshal Luigi Cadorna, the Italians threw waves of men over the Isonzo into well-defended positions occupied by the Austro-Hungarian army. 12 more battles over the Isonzo river valley and the disastrous Battle of Caporetto cost the Italians hundreds of thousands of men for no conquered territory or Austro-Hungarian armies defeated. Finally convinced of Cadorna’s pointless brutality, dangerously outdated military strategies and poor leadership, the Italian government finally replaced Cadorna with Armando Diaz. Diaz managed to bring the Italian Army back to full strength and decisively beat the Austro-Hungarian Army at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, avenging the defeat at Caporetto and knocking Austro-Hungary out of the war, hastening the end of the conflict.
On the sea, the fledgling Italian Navy (Regia Marina) spent most of the war at harbour, despite and because of the fact that the Marina’s fleet was powerful and extremely expensive. Italy followed in the footsteps of Britain by building Dreadnought battleships: fast, well-armoured, well-armed and powerful ships that outclassed all other military vessels laid down before it. Much like the Cold War later on in the century, Italy and Austro-Hungary avoided using their best weapons as they were too evenly-matched to ensure a decisive victory. Instead, Italy developed new methods of naval warfare: MAS torpedo boats sunk the SMS Szent Istvan and human torpedoes struck the flagship of the Austro-Hungarian Navy at her harbour in Pula. These shocking attacks on the Austro-Hungarian Navy ensured that the rest of the fleet was bottled up at port for most of the war.
With the end of the war, Italy received portions of Austro-Hungary that it had sought since the founding of the country. Nevertheless, many in Italy felt cheated by the various treaties that carved up the Central Powers and their colonies, with Italy receiving little for the human cost of the war. This feeling of nationalist indignation, unemployment, political instability and labour action was exploited by the Italian Fascists, led by Benito Mussolini. 4 years after the war, Mussolini and his Blackshirts marched on Rome, threatening the Liberal government and undermining their authority. By decree of the Italian king, Mussolini replaced the Liberal government in 1922, ending the political instability of post-war Italy but ushering in a new age of totalitarian, reactionary government and a prelapsarian conviction to build the Roman Empire anew.
Italy’s colonial ambitions would be rekindled by the Fascist regime, with Ethiopia falling to a second invasion by the Italians in 1936 and the occupation of Somalialand. At the dawn of another global war, Italy was a feared and powerful nation threatened to wrest control of the Mediterranean from Britain and France with its powerful navy. For the first time in 2000 years, the Italians could call the Mediterranean ‘Mare Nostrum’. To this day, the Mediterranean remains important to maritime trade, and more recently, tourism. If you’re looking for a yacht charter based in the south of France with access to ports around the western Mediterranean and the Caribbean, You Charter Direct provides several cruising locations in the Mediterranean so you can see some of the history of the Mediterranean for yourself.