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First World War : May 1915, Italy joins the Allies

First World War : May 1915, Italy joins the Allies

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First World War: Map of Europe in May 1915

Map of Europe in May 1915. Italy has joined the allied cause, created a second front for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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Allied Army of the Orient

The Allied Army of the Orient (AAO) (French: Armées alliées en Orient) was the name of the unified command over the multi-national allied armed forces on the Salonika Front during the First World War.

When Germany, Austria-Hungary and, the newly joined ally, Bulgaria were about to overran Serbia, in September–October 1915, the returning multi-national troops from the failed Gallipoli campaign disembarked in the Greek port of Salonika to establish the Macedonian Front. A side-effect of the landing was the further burdening the National Schism between the Greek King and the Prime minister, and the forced resignation of the latter.

By August 1916, some 400,000 allied soldiers from five different armies occupied the Salonika Front. A unified command imposed itself and after long discussions, French General Maurice Sarrail was placed in command of all Allied forces at Salonika, although they retained right of appeal to their governments.

Greece itself remained at first neutral. After a coup on 30 August 1916, the Provisional Government of National Defence, led by Eleftherios Venizelos, was created in Salonika. It started assembling an army and soon participated in operations against the Central Powers. In June 1917, after increasing pressure from the allies, King Constantine I of Greece was forced to abdicate from the throne. Venizelos assumed control of the entire country and Greece officially declared war against the Central Powers on 30 June 1917. The Greek forces also operated under command of the AAO.


The military alliance that fought against the Central Powers was known as the Allies. Initially this alliance was based around the four great powers of Russia, France, Japan and the British Empire, along with the smaller states of Serbia, Montenegro and Belgium that also went to war in 1914.

Italy joined the Allies in May 1915 by declaring war on its neighbour, Austria-Hungary. This opened up a new battlefront – the Italian Front – along their common border that would be the main focus of Italian military operations for the rest of the war. Italy did not declare war on Germany until August 1916. The Italian Front, like the Western Front, was characterised by bloody trench warfare. Conditions were made even worse by the fact that much of it was fought at high altitude in the Alps.

In 1916 Romania and Portugal joined the war on the Allies' side, but the former was soon invaded by the Central Powers, which occupied nearly all of its territory. Similar fates had been suffered by Belgium in 1914, Serbia in late 1915 and Montenegro in early 1916. With the exception of Montenegro these countries stayed in the war, establishing governments-in-exile and maintaining armies in the field.

The most dramatic upheaval occurred in 1917, when the outbreak of revolution in Russia led to its withdrawal from the alliance and the signing of a seperate peace with the Central Powers, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in early 1918. Compensating for the loss of this great power to the Allies was the addition of the United States of America, which declared war on Germany in April 1917. But American troops arrived in France agonisingly slowly, and it was not until late 1918 that they began to make a real impact at the front line.

The American action led to a flurry of like-minded declarations of war by the Republic of Liberia and eight Central and South American states, including Brazil, Cuba and Haiti. Their membership of the alliance – like China's declaration of war on Germany in August 1917 – was more symbolic than substantive. China’s decision was seen as an essential step in winning back international recognition and respect for China’s sovereignty from the Western powers and Japan. The Chinese Republican leadership placed much hope in the Allied promise that victory would be followed by a dramatic rearrangement of the international order that would address past injustices.

Greece also formally joined the Allies in June 1917, but in very controversial circumstances and under intense pressure from the French and British governments. An Allied army of French, British, Serbian and Italian troops had, with Greek permission, occupied the Greek port of Salonika to fight the Bulgarians in northern Greece and southern Serbia since late 1915. From then on pro-Allied Greek political factions had agitated for the country to openly join the Allies. The decision to do so came only after the pro-German King of Greece, Constantine I, was forced to abdicate to stop the issue leading to civil war. Subsequently the Greek Army was wholeheartedly committed to the Allied cause, with Greek troops playing a leading role in the final offensives against the Bulgarians in 1918.

Italy Is Bribed into War, 1915

Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915. The great hope of the Allies was that an army of more than a million men would be thrown against the Austro-Hungarian troops guarding their southern flank at the northeast corner of Italy. The Italian army was described optimistically, with a couple of warning notes:

Italian horse-drawn field artillery. Highly mobile&mdashon flat ground. Image: Scientific American, June 19, 1915

Expectations of the Italians were high. Yet according to this article elsewhere in the June 19 issue, the first couple of weeks of the Italian effort in the war seemed lackluster:

The article accurately points out the difficulty of fighting in the spectacular, rugged, mountain terrain that was totally unsuited to the large-scale offensive attacks favored by the Italian military&mdashespecially given that the Austro-Hungarians held the high ground.

Italian troops manning a trench, 1915. The image probably shows a training exercise as opposed to front-line fighting. Image: Scientific American, June 19, 1915

Not addressed in either of these articles was the fact that although Italy&rsquos scientific and technical capabilities could turn out excellent weapons, the industrial base was as yet too thin to mass-produce enough of them for the expanding army fighting the new kind of large-scale warfare.

Why did Italy enter the war? The articles do not&mdashand in 1915 could not&mdashmake any mention of the machinations by Britain, France and Russia that had encouraged Italy&rsquos entry into the war. These countries had all signed the secret Treaty of London in the month before Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary. The treaty seems like a straight bribe: Italy enters the war and in return is promised ownership or control of territories that in 1915 were held or administered by Austria-Hungary, Germany and Turkey&mdashall countries that Italy expected to defeat in war. The Treaty of London, by the way, was exposed when copies of it were found and published by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. By then the Italian army had lost almost 700,000 dead, had suffered one of the largest defeats in the war, and was close to collapse.

Ernest Hemingway&rsquos A Farewell to Arms is a semi-fictionalized account of his work as an ambulance driver for the Italian army during the Great War.

A fine history on the Italian front considers the military, political and artistic aspects of the fierce fighting in the snowy Dolomite region: The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, by Mark Thompson (Basic Books, 2009).

Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914&ndash1918 on the chemical aspects of the war. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi


Dan Schlenoff was a contributing editor at Scientific American and edited the 50, 100 and 150 Years Ago column for one seventh of the magazine's history.

Serbia and the Salonika expedition, 1915–17

Austria’s three attempted invasions of Serbia in 1914 had been brusquely repulsed by Serbian counterattacks. By the summer of 1915 the Central Powers were doubly concerned to close the account with Serbia, both for reasons of prestige and for the sake of establishing secure rail communications with Turkey across the Balkans. In August, Germany sent reinforcements to Austria’s southern front and, on Sept. 6, 1915, the Central Powers concluded a treaty with Bulgaria, whom they drew to their side by the offer of territory to be taken from Serbia. The Austro-German forces attacked southward from the Danube on October 6 and the Bulgars, undeterred by a Russian ultimatum, struck at eastern Serbia on October 11 and at Serbian Macedonia on October 14.

The western Allies, surprised in September by the prospect of a Bulgarian attack on Serbia, hastily decided to send help through neutral Greece’s Macedonian port of Salonika, relying on the collusion of Greece’s pro-Entente prime minister, Eleuthérios Venizélos. Troops from Gallipoli, under the French general Maurice Sarrail, reached Salonika on October 5, but on that day Venizélos fell from power. The Allies advanced northward up the Vardar into Serbian Macedonia but found themselves prevented from junction with the Serbs by the westward thrust of the Bulgars. Driven back over the Greek frontier, the Allies were merely occupying the Salonika region by mid-December. The Serbian Army, meanwhile, to avoid double envelopment, had begun an arduous winter retreat westward over the Albanian mountains to refuge on the island of Corfu.

In the spring of 1916 the Allies at Salonika were reinforced by the revived Serbs from Corfu as well as by French, British, and some Russian troops, and the bridgehead was expanded westward to Vodena (Edessa) and eastward to Kilkis but the Bulgars, who in May obtained Fort Rupel (Klidhi, on the Struma) from the Greeks, in mid-August not only overran Greek Macedonia east of the Struma but also, from Monastir (Bitola), invaded the Florina region of Greek Macedonia, to the west of the Allies’ Vodena wing. The Allied counteroffensive took Monastir from the Bulgars in November 1916, but more ambitious operations, from March to May 1917, proved abortive. The Salonika front was tying down some 500,000 Allied troops without troubling the Central Powers in any significant way.

10 facts you (probably) didn’t know about the First World War

It's one of the most well-documented conflicts in history, but how much do you know about World War One (also known as the First World War and the Great War)? Here, Seán Lang reveals 10 lesser-known facts about the global conflict fought between 1914 and 1918.

This competition is now closed

Published: March 10, 2020 at 10:00 am

Also known as the Great War, the First World War was a global conflict primarily fought between two groups: the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria and Italy) and the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia). It began on 28 July 1914, following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand a month earlier, and ended on 11 November 1918 with the signing of a ceasefire, or ‘armistice’.

It’s one of the most well-documented conflicts in history, but how much do you know about World War One? Discover 10 surprising facts below…

The alliance system didn’t cause the war

Many people assume that the war resulted directly from the alliance structure that bound all the European great powers together before 1914. Germany was allied to Austria-Hungary and Italy Russia was allied to France, and both countries had an entente (a diplomatic agreement) with Britain.

The alliances certainly contributed to the prewar build-up of tension between the great powers but, perhaps surprisingly, none of these alliances actually produced a declaration of war.

In July 1914 Germany gave Austria-Hungary a sweeping guarantee of support known as the ‘Blank Cheque’, which went far beyond the terms of their formal alliance. The French came in because Germany launched a pre-emptive strike against them Britain declared war not because of the entente agreements but because the Germans invaded Belgium, and Italy first kept out of the war and then came in against its own allies!

There were special battalions for short soldiers

The minimum height requirement for the British Army was 5ft 3ins, but many shorter men were caught up in the recruiting enthusiasm of August 1914 and were keen to enlist.

Rather reluctantly the War Office established a number of ‘bantam battalions’, attached to more conventional regiments. Many bantams were coal miners, and their short height and technical expertise proved a great asset in the tunnelling work that went on underneath the western front.

However, bantams were not particularly effective in battle, and by the end of 1916 the general fitness and condition of men volunteering as bantams was no longer up to the standard required. It wasn’t easy to maintain recruitment: increasingly the bantam battalions had to accept men of ‘normal’ height. And there’s not much point in a bantam battalion that is largely made up of taller men, so after conscription was introduced in 1916 the bantam battalions idea was quietly dropped.

Munitions girls kept football going

The Football League suspended its programme after the 1914–15 season (although the FA continued to allow clubs to organise regional competitions), and amateur tournaments were difficult to run with so many men in the army, so women stepped into the breach.

Munitions workers – ‘munitionettes’, as they were known – formed football teams and played against rival factories. Munitionette football attracted a wide following, and many matches were played at the grounds of professional clubs. When peace came, however, the female players had to hang up their boots and go back to the domestic lives they had been leading before the war. But the sport continued to enjoy success until women were banned from playing in Football League grounds in 1921.

Portuguese troops fought in the war

Like many neutral countries, Portugal was angry at German U-boat attacks on its merchant shipping. The Portuguese were also worried that the German military campaign in Africa might move into their colonies in Mozambique and Angola.

In March 1916, Germany declared war on Portugal. As well as patrolling the oceans and strengthening their border controls in Africa, the Portuguese also sent a military force to the western front. The Portuguese won the respect of their more battle-hardened allies, and put up a particularly stubborn fight against the great German offensive of spring, 1918.

The Russians first solved the problem of trench warfare

Launching a successful attack against a heavily fortified enemy trench was one of the most difficult problems facing military commanders on both sides: barbed wire and machine guns gave a considerable advantage to the defender. Even if an attacker did break through, the attacking force usually ran out of steam just as the defenders brought up reinforcements.

The man who solved the conundrum was the Russian general Alexei Brusilov, who in 1916 launched a massive offensive against the Austrians in co-ordination with the British and French attack on the Somme. Brusilov realised that offensives on the western front were too heavily concentrated on trying to ‘punch a hole’ through the enemy line at a particular point, so the enemy knew exactly where to send his reinforcements.

By attacking over a much larger area, Brusilov was able to hide the direction of his main attack from the Austrians, so they never knew which points to reinforce and which to abandon. Of course, Brusilov’s approach needed the sort of huge numbers of men that were the Russian army’s speciality, and after its initial success the attack petered out because the supply system for food and ammunition couldn’t cope.

The war produced Britain’s worst rail disaster

On 22 May 1915 a troop train carrying men of the Royal Scots Guards and the Leith Territorial battalion south to embark for the Gallipoli campaign crashed into a stationary local train sitting outside a signal box near Gretna Green. Moments later the Glasgow express crashed into the wreckage of the two trains, and the whole scene was engulfed by fire.

Some 226 people were killed, 214 of them soldiers, and 246 were seriously injured. It remains to this day the biggest loss of life in a railway accident in Britain.

The crash happened through the carelessness of the two signalmen, who were found guilty of criminal negligence and sent to prison. They had shunted the local train onto the main line instead of a siding and had been too busy chatting about the war to change the signals to warn the approaching troop train.

Wartime demand for rolling stock was so high that trains were using old wooden-framed carriages, which caught fire with terrifying speed. The crash was another unwanted by-product of the First World War.

Japan came to the rescue of the British in the Mediterranean

Britain’s only formal alliance before 1914 was with Japan, and it was designed to relieve the Royal Navy of some of the burden of defending Britain’s Asian colonies, and to enable Britain and Japan to help one another safeguard their respective interests in China and Korea.

When war broke out, the Japanese attacked German possessions in the Pacific and China, but in 1917 Britain requested Japanese assistance with escort duties in the Mediterranean. The region was vital for supplying Allied armies in Italy and Greece, and for maintaining communications with Africa, but the Allied navies faced threats from German and Austrian submarines.

The Japanese, operating from Malta, provided escorts for Allied merchant and troop convoys, and a search-and-rescue service for the crews of torpedoed vessels. Japan’s important role in the war strengthened its claim to be accepted by the Americans and Europeans as a fully fledged great power.

The Chinese worked on the western front

Who actually filled all those sandbags we see in photographs of the trenches? Who loaded the guns, ammunitions and food onto lorries or trains? Who cleared up after a train was derailed or a headquarters building shelled?

The answer was the Chinese Labour Corps. They were volunteers from the Chinese countryside who were sent to Europe to fulfil a vital, but almost completely overlooked role in making an Allied victory possible. They were paid a pittance, and were generally regarded by both the British and French as expendable ‘coolies’.

They mostly served behind the lines, which limited their casualties from enemy action, although they suffered very badly from the ‘Spanish’ flu epidemic of 1918.

The war dragged on two weeks longer than you think

Although we mark the Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, as the end of the First World War, it actually lasted two further weeks in Africa.

The German commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had become a national hero in Germany through his ruthless guerrilla campaign against Britain’s imperial forces in East Africa, forcing Africans to act as his porters and devastating the economy of the local villages as he did so. Vorbeck had been forced into Portuguese Mozambique by November 1918, but he still had some 3,000 troops under his command and he was still launching raids into Southern Rhodesia when news reached him of the armistice in Europe.

Unlike the German army in Europe, Vorbeck could regard his own force as undefeated, and he decided to end the African war at a time of his own choosing. He formally surrendered to the British in Northern Rhodesia (modern Zambia) on 25 November, two weeks after the Armistice in Europe.

Kipling’s words were tragic

The words that appear on the gravestones of unidentified soldiers of the First World War, “A soldier of the Great War known unto God”, were written by the celebrated writer and Nobel Prizewinner, Rudyard Kipling.

Commissioning leading figures like Kipling was a way of showing that Britain honoured its war dead. The words on the Cenotaph in Whitehall, built by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, even calls them “The Glorious Dead”. The words were chosen by Kipling, but there was a cruel irony in this commission.

Kipling’s own son John had been taken into the army despite his appallingly weak eyesight, and was killed by a German shell in 1915 at the battle of Loos. His body was never found, so he too became, in his father’s words, “a soldier of the Great War known unto God”.

Seán Lang is the author of First World War for Dummies (2014)

This article was first published in August 2014

A Comprehensive World War One Timeline

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, had decided to inspect Austro-Hungarian troops in Bosnia. The date chosen for the inspection was a national day in Bosnia. The Black Hand supplied a group of students with weapons for an assassination attempt to mark the occasion.

A Serbian nationalist student, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, when their open car stopped at a corner on its way out of the town.

Although Russia was allied with Serbia, Germany did not believe that she would mobilise and offered to support Austria if necessary.

However, Russia did mobilise and, through their alliance with France, called on the French to mobilise.

Despite a French counter-attack that saw the deaths of many Frenchmen on the battlefields at Ardennes, the Germans continued to march into France. They were eventually halted by the allies at the river Marne.

British troops had advanced from the northern coast of France to the Belgian town of Mons. Although they initially held off the Germans, they were soon forced to retreat.

The British lost a huge number of men at the first battle of Ypres.

By Christmas, all hopes that the war would be over had gone and the holiday saw men of both sides digging themselves into the trenches of theWestern Front.

Although British losses were heavier than the German, the battle had alarmed both the Kaiser and the German Admiral Scheer and they decided to keep their fleet consigned to harbour for the remainder of the war.

This article is part of our extensive collection of articles on the Great War. Click here to see our comprehensive article on World War 1.

Stalemate Years (1915-1917)

By the end of 1914, it was clear that the Western Front was locked in a stalemate. Campaigns throughout February and March of 1915 resulted in massive casualties with little ground gained or lost. Other Allied offensives led to similar results. Germany began using chlorine gas on April 22, and expanded its rail system to circumvent England's naval blockade.

A Russian retreat in late April continued until October 1915, halting along a line between the Baltic Sea and the Romanian border. A Russian offensive against Turkey, launched in November 1914, had been defeated by January 1915. Turkey was expelled from neutral Persia in March. In Mesopotamia, England would continue its fruitless advance toward Baghdad. The Turkish threat diminished considerably after a 1917 revolt by Syria and Palestine. Austria's repeated attempts to invade Serbia culminated in an attack in October 1915, aided by Bulgaria. An Allied attempt to send help through Salonika merely resulted in increasing troop commitments in an area that offered little in the way of advancing the war effort.

After signing the Treaty of London April 26, 1915, Italy agreed to join the Allied cause. On May 23, they declared war on Austria-Hungary. An initial advance was followed by trench warfare, and the six Battles of the Isonzo resulted with many casualties and little advancement.

In 1916, Germany began a heavy bombardment of France, but advancement was stopped by the Somme Offensive in July-September. In summer 1916, England and Germany squared off in the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle in history. Along the Eastern Front, Russia launched offensives against Germany in March 1916 and came to Italy's aid in June. Brusilov's offensive would be their final military stand in World War II. An April 1917 mutiny of French soldiers greatly reduced France's military strength, while anarchy and chaos following the Russian Revolution led to a demoralization that seemed disastrous for the Allies.

After severing diplomatic ties with Germany on February 3, 1917, continued submarine attacks finally pushed the United States to declare war on April 6. Haiti, Honduras, Brazil, Guatamala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, China and occupied Greece would do the same. These additional troops, armaments and financial resources would turn the tide of the war and eventually lead to the Allies' victory.

Success on the Italian front led Austria and Germany to launch an offensive against Italy, leading to a unified Allied military command following the Supreme War Council at Versailles. Meanwhile, England forced the Turks to retreat through Mesopotamia and occupied Jerusalem by December 9, 1917.

Under pressure from the Allies, the German submarine campaign was diminished and eventually defeated. England developed the world's first military air service, the Royal Air Force, in 1916 as a response to repeated attacks by German dirigible airships known as Zeppelins.

Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria died on November 21, 1916. Negotiation attempts by the new emperor and foreign minister began in the spring of 1917, but ultimately came to nothing. President Woodrow Wilson of the United States launched a campaign for peace with a series of pronouncements in 1918. This significantly affected the morale of the German people.

Triple Entente

The Triple Entente (English: Triple Agreement) was the name given to an alliance between the United Kingdom, France and the Russian Empire. The alliance was made after the Anglo-Russian Entente, an agreement between Britain and Russia in 1907. The alliance was made stronger by agreements made with Japan, the United States and Spain. In this form, there was a balance of power, which meant that no group was much stronger than any other one, with the "Triple Alliance" of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. If Italy was attacked by France she would have the help of the other two powers, and if France attacked Germany Italy would help Germany and danger was that if triple alliance was if France should come into an agreement with Russia. The was solved by Bismarck by persuading Russia and Austria [Hungary] to revive the old Dreikaiserbund treaty.

With the First World War, these ententes were not military agreements - but they later involved the military because of the problems between the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. That's why the Triple Entente became a military alliance. In 1915, Italy left the Triple Alliance, and from 1916 fought against Germany. The Russian revolution in October 1917 meant that Russia left the alliance, but the military alliance between France and the UK lasted until 1940, when Nazi Germany invaded France. Later on, Italy joined the Entente in a battle against Austria–Hungary in May 1915 and Germany in August 1916. Dudley, Thomas Lloyd and Davey Murphy. the triple entente was to fight for the Anglo German navy race countries had to become stronger.

During World War I, the alliance was expanded to create a multinational coalition, known as the "Allies".

  • France
  • Russian Empire
  • British Empire
  • Serbia
  • Belgium
  • Montenegro
  • Empire of Japan
  • Kingdom of Italy
  • Portugal
  • Kingdom of Romania
  • US
  • Panama
  • Cuba
  • Greece
  • Thailand
  • Liberia
  • China
  • Brazil
  • Guatemala
  • Nicaragua
  • Costa Rica
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Asir
  • Nejd and Hasa
  • Hejaz
  • Armenia

Unrestricted strategy

This strategy offered huge opportunities for Germany. Britain was heavily reliant on foodstuffs and munitions carried across the Atlantic Ocean from Canada and neutral America. The severing of this Atlantic lifeline could force Britain out of the war.

Unrestricted U-boat warfare also, however, posed enormous risks. In practice, it would be very difficult to avoid sinking vessels belonging to neutral states. Popular opinion in the USA tended towards isolationism, although President Woodrow Wilson was personally sympathetic to the Allied cause. Indiscriminate attacks on shipping that resulted in the sinking of American vessels and the loss of American lives ran the risk that the USA might be added to the number of Germany's enemies.

Further sinkings brought about a rapid deterioration in German-American relations .

The sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania by U-20 in May 1915 underlined this risk. 128 Americans were among the 1,198 people who died. America was outraged about this attack (although the ship may have been carrying munitions). Further sinkings brought about a rapid deterioration in German-American relations, and in September, Berlin ended unrestricted warfare.

The campaign had sunk about 750,000 tons of Allied shipping, which was too little to make much of an impact on Britain's economy. The fleet of German long-range submarines was too small - at around 16 - to be really effective, and their commanders struggled to keep more than five on station at any one time.

Complicated military alliances and treaties between the European powers divided much of Europe. The consequence of these alliances and treaties meant that if one country or power bloc went to war, the others would likely go to war too. The two opposing sides in Europe were:

The Triple Entente or Allies:

Italy, initially allied to the Central Powers, refused to be drawn into what it viewed as their war of aggression. In May 1915, Italy joined the Entente hoping to acquire territory from Austria-Hungary and new colonial possessions, mainly in Africa.

Smaller European powers picked sides during the war, dominions and colonies contributed soldiers to their mother countries, and powerful non-European powers such as Japan and the United States would later enter the war on the Allied side.

Watch the video: World War One - 1915 (August 2022).