T. H. Wintringham

The Road to Caporetto

Source: Left Review Vol. 2, No. 2, November 1935, pp.63-5
Transcription: Phyll Smith
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

FROM my bookshelf the title of a book looks down on me ironically “Farewell to Arms,” Ernest Hemingway called it. I shall not quote it; that would take too long. But no summary could do justice to the chapter that I remember most clearly, the description of the panic-mutiny of a million men, after the defeat at Caporetto.

“We’re going home,” those men said. They had seen enough war; they were tired of it. They had seen through the lies of war “patriotism,” and through the fame of their own generals, incompetent fools unable to watch the flanks, letting their troops be butchered in their rest billets, letting their guns be taken from the rear. When an army ceases to believe in its commanders, it tries to go home. It “votes for peace”; that is the way Lenin described it. “But they never have had a chance to vote,” someone answered him. “They have voted with their feet—they’ve gone home,” Lenin said. The Italians now in Ethiopia will, inevitably, vote with their feet before this war ends. Their feet will take them to a new Caporetto and beyond.

Not this week, not this month; but when the frosts come on the bleak plateaux, twice the height of our highest mountain, or when the rains come next year, or in the gasping heat of next summer; we cannot tell when these lads from Italy, as gallant as any and gayer than most, will be swept into the heartbreaking agony of retreat, panic, mutiny. But it is inevitable. It is a hell to which Fascism dooms its soldiers.

There are plenty of possible alternatives in the world to-day; in Abyssinia this General de Bonn (queer figure so like the Tsarist generals of 1916, in looks and bearing) could commit almost any folly. In the Mediterranean anything may happen—anything, except a “happy ending” for the soldiers who have gone singing through the Canal to the deserts and mountains of Cancer, the tropic of the Crab.

Not all the troops that General de Bonn uses have come in good heart to the battle-field. His divisions of native levies are war-weary from the deserts of Cyrenaica. In that bare province, through the unending sandhills, they have been fighting for years the Senussi tribes men, and have exterminated them. Now the Senussi are having their revenge on Italy. For the word “Senussi” does not mean a tribe or group of tribes in North Africa. There are Senussi in most parts of the Moslem world. In Morocco and in Iraq there are members of the Senussi brotherhood. This brotherhood is a militant organization, very loosely linked, professing not so much a variant of the Mohammedan religion as a determination to see that the main tenets of that religion are carried out. They are men of the desert and the difficult hills, these Senussi, and have the harsh directness of belief and action that has, in other climates, produced Calvinists and Presbyterians. And they are numerous, and very powerful, in Italian Somaliland.

That is where the Italians begin to meet with the revenge of the northern Senussi, the men of the Sahara, who were driven from well to well until they came up against the hundred-mile fence of barbed wire, six feet wide, that Fascist ingenuity had thrown across the desert. By that fence lie the bones of the last remnant of a nomad people. But their memory is alive among Somalis who carry on their arms the chevrons of Italy but keep in their hearts the Senussi watchwords.

In Libya these Somalis could do nothing against their owners and masters. They were three thousand miles from their homes. But now they have been brought home—almost home. The Somali levies have been put in Eritrea, the Eritrean levies are with General Graziani’s forces in Somalia. A clever device. But its inevitable result is a constant stream of desertions men are leaving the Italian lines and going over to armies that cannot supply them well, but can offer them a hope. And can help them to avenge themselves on Italy for the ten-year murder of the Senussi of the north, members of their own brotherhood.

The Italian troops, therefore, go into action behind a screen of native scouts whose feelings are already mutinous. To-day as I write an Italian captain relates, in the Daily Telegraph, the glorious story of the crossing of the river March by the Second Army Corps. First go the “Askaris.”1 Then go the tanks. Used wastefully, and over-used, these machines have to form an outpost line on the hills. (No wonder the first reports of mutiny in the Italian forces refer to the Tank Corps.) Next come the troops of the ordinary conscript army. And the Blackshirts? They are not mentioned.

The fact that they are not mentioned is significant. The writer is an Army Officer—of the “real army.” It is not very difficult to see why he writes nothing of the Blackshirt division that is combined with his own division to make the Corps. Even more significant of the feeling existing between these two sections of the Italian army is the silence of the official Italian communiqués about the Blackshirt troops.

Exploits worth recording are few, in this jumbled quarter-hearted creep and blunder into battle round Adowa and in Ogaden. But the industrious Italian staff officers and the correspondents they shepherd have no found it impossible to praise the division that took Adowa and the division that has gone beyond Adigrat. Not once, in these reports, official or unofficial, have I come across a reference to the “Blackshirt” divisions that, with these, make up the two “National” Corps.

There is clear cause for the silence. The Blackshirts are “battle police.”

The duty of these troops is not to fight Abyssinians. It is to make certain that Italian conscripts fight Abyssinians.

In Hemingway’s chapters on Caporetto he describes the battle police at a bridge in rear of the half-mutinous armies. They used their revolvers. They shot fugitives who had left their units and were taking “a short cut.” They shot fugitives almost at random (like the British when engaged in “reprisals” against some revolt) as an example, an encouragement to others. They did not fight the Austrians and Germans; they saw to it that the ordinary troops, all left of them who could be got within revolver-reach, turned and fought. On this noble model the Blackshirt troops are formed.

A clever device—but none could be invented more likely to goad troops to mutiny.

These are a few of the specific Italian variants of a process as wide as Imperialism itself. We are going into new imperialist wars. Those wars will be machine wars; the machines will do the fighting; the men will be their servants and targets. The men who make the machines in the factories at home, transport them to the front, and use them there, will be different men from those of the old armies of fifty years ago. They will be skilled men, children of the industrial working-class. They will be men of the trade unions and class war. In their hands will be the power to end these wars. That is a proposition applying with equal force to Britain’s next imperialist war and to Italy’s present one.

Those who think British troops are not subject to the same sort of influence as continental armies should think back. The Herald for January 11th, 1919, describes fifteen mutinies—in England. There was, in the same month, a revolt at Calais of over 4,000 men.

Men marched to Downing Street protesting at being sent back to France. Men attacked police-stations in the fight against being sent to Northern Russia. Crews of the Royal Navy “stood together” as later at Invergordon. In Baku a British battalion, characteristically, refused to carry out its duties unless it could have permission to hire an interpreter for two evenings a week, who would read out to the troops passages from Pravda and Isvestia. The War Office ordered the battalion home.

The Prime Minister’s son has written of this period: “the whole division (of the Guards) was ordered home (from the Rhine) as the War Office expected a revolution in England and could not rely on any but us. As there had been small mutinies at Cologne in most of the Guards’ regiments but ours—and that was not my fault—it might not have worked so well if we had been put to the test.”2.

Certainly it might not have worked so well. Nor will it work so well, when the future test comes. That test is not far from us now; each week that the government goes on with its present policy brings the test of a new world war nearer to us. Into that war we are moving.

We shall move out from it—if this government forces it on us—by the only way in which a big war can be ended, in society as it is the way the war of 1905 ended, and that of 1914—the road to Caporetto and beyond. The Italians may prove to be ahead of us on that road, or not far behind us. It is a road as terrible as all those roads, through thousands of years of war, that have been taken by armies pressed to the limit of their endurance. But this time the road, at last, leads not to new wars, new weariness, but to the release of a world.



1. An “expert” in the Observer is allowed (by a sub-editor perhaps affected in some way by that paper’s pro-Fascist policy) to write “askaris—that is their tribal name” (P. Gentizon in the Observer for October 6th, 1935). “Askari” is an Arabic word for soldier, and is used for any native troops throughout the tropical parts of East Africa.

2. Oliver Baldwin, The Questing Beast, London, 1932, page 76.