Benito Mussolini declares himself dictator of Italy


Publish date:
Year
1925
Month Day
January 03

Similar to Adolf Hitler, Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini did not become the dictator of a totalitarian regime overnight. For several years, he and his allies worked more or less within the confines of the Italian constitution to accrue power, eroding democratic institutions until the moment came for them to be done away with entirely. It is generally agreed that that moment came in speech Mussolini gave to the Italian parliament on January 3, 1925, in which he asserted his right to supreme power and effectively became the dictator of Italy.

Mussolini had been a schoolteacher and an avowed socialist, but after World War I he became a leader of the nascent Fascist movement. Like much of Europe, Italy was rife with social turmoil in the wake of the war, with paramilitary groups and street gangs frequently clashing over their competing visions for the new political order. A close confidant of Mussolini formed a Fascist paramilitary group, known as the Blackshirts or squadristi, as Mussolini led the political party, and they found that government fears of a communist revolution allowed them to operate without state intervention. By 1921, Mussolini had been elected to parliament as the leader of the growing National Fascist Party.

Soon after Mussolini’s election, armed Blackshirts marched on Rome, demanding that the king install Mussolini as Prime Minister. In a decision that utterly changed the course of Italian and European history, King Victor Emmanuel III ignored Prime Minister Luigi Facta’s pleas that he declare martial law, leading to Facta’s resignation and Emmanuel’s invitation to Mussolini to form a new government. The Fascists and their moderate allies set about dismantling Italy’s democratic institutions. He was proclaimed dictator for a year and increasingly merged his party and its paramilitary wing with the state and the official military. He also undertook a program of privatizations and anti-union legislation in order to assure industrialists and aristocrats that fascism would protect them from socialism.

Despite these reforms, many Fascists felt Mussolini was moving too slowly. In 1924, assassins with ties to Mussolini killed socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti, leading most of the parliamentary opposition to boycott Mussolini’s legislature. The Fascists felt that their moment had come. On December 31, they issued an ultimatum to Mussolini. Three days later, he addressed the remainder of parliament, declaring “I, and I alone, assume the political, moral, and historical responsibility for all that has happened,” obliquely referring to the assassination of Matteotti. In doing so, Mussolini dared prosecutors and the rest of Italy’s democratic institutions, as well as the king, to challenge his authority. None did. Thus, from 1925 onward, Mussolini was able to operate openly as a dictator, styling himself Il Duce and fusing the state and the Fascist Party. Two decades of suppression and brutality followed, culminating in Mussolini’s alliance with Nazi Germany and the Second World War.

READ MORE: Mussolini’s Final Hours

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British Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps is officially established

Year
1917
Month Day
July 07

On July 7, 1917, British Army Council Instruction Number 1069 formally establishes the British Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), authorizing female volunteers to serve alongside their male counterparts in France during World War I.

By 1917, large numbers of women were already working in munitions factories throughout Britain, serving the crucial function of supplying sufficient shells and other munitions for the Allied war effort. The harsh conditions in the factories were undeniable, with long hours spent working with noxious chemicals such as the explosive TNT; a total of 61 female munitions workers died of poisoning, while 81 others died in accidents at work. An explosion at a munitions factory in Silvertown, East London, when an accidental fire ignited 50 tons of TNT, killed 69 more women and severely injured 72 more.

In early 1917, a campaign began to allow women to more directly support the war effort by enlisting in the army to perform labors such as cookery, mechanical and clerical work and other miscellaneous tasks that would otherwise be done by men who could better serve their country in the trenches. By March 11, 1917, even Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief, had come around to the idea, writing to the British War Office that “the principle of employing women in this country [France] is accepted and they will be made use of wherever conditions admit.”

The establishment of the WAAC in the summer of 1917 meant that, for the first time, women were to be put in uniform and sent to France to serve as clerks, telephone operators, waitresses and in other positions on the war front. Women were paid less than their male counterparts: 24 shillings per week for unskilled labor and up to twice that for more skilled labor, such as shorthand typing. 

As the stated purpose behind the WAAC was to release British soldiers doing menial work in Britain and France for active service at the front, the War Office set the restriction that for every woman given a job through the WAAC, a man had to be released for frontline duties. None of the female volunteers could become officers–according to traditions in the British army–but those who rose in the ranks were given the status of “controllers” or “administrators.” 

By the end of World War I, approximately 80,000 women had served in the three British women’s forces—the WAAC, the Women’s Relief Defense Corps and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry—as non-combatants, but full-fledged contributors to the Allied war effort.

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Germany declares war on Portugal


Year
1916
Month Day
March 09

On March 9, 1916, Germany declares war on Portugal, who earlier that year honored its alliance with Great Britain by seizing German ships anchored in Lisbon’s harbor.

Portugal became a republic in 1910 after a revolution led by the country’s military toppled King Manuel II (his father, King Carlos, and elder brother had been assassinated two years earlier). A liberal constitution was enacted in 1911, and Manuel JosÉ de Arriaga was elected as the republic’s first president.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Portugal became increasingly anxious about the security of its colonial holdings in Angola and Mozambique. In order to secure international support for its authority in Africa, Portugal entered the war on the side of Britain and the Allies. Its participation was at first limited to naval support. In February 1917, however, Portugal sent its first troops—an expeditionary force of 50,000 men—to the Western Front. They saw action for the first time in Belgium on June 17 of that year.

One notable battle in which Portuguese forces took part was the Battle of Lys, near the Lys River in the Flanders region of Belgium, in April 1918. It was part of the major German offensive—the last of the war—launched that spring on the Western Front. During that battle, one Portuguese division of troops was struck hard by four German divisions; the preliminary shelling alone was so heavy that one Portuguese battalion refused to push forward into the trenches. 

All told, the victorious Germans took more than 6,000 prisoners in that conflict and were able to push through enemy lines along a three-and-a-half mile stretch. By the time World War I ended, a total of 7,000 Portuguese soldiers had died in combat.

READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I

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Battle of the Somme begins

Year
1916
Month Day
July 01

At 7:30 a.m., the British launch a massive offensive against German forces in the Somme River region of France. During the preceding week, 250,000 Allied shells had pounded German positions near the Somme, and 100,000 British soldiers poured out of their trenches and into no-man’s-land on July 1, expecting to find the way cleared for them. However, scores of heavy German machine guns had survived the artillery onslaught, and the infantry were massacred. By the end of the day, 20,000 British soldiers were dead and 40,000 wounded. It was the single heaviest day of casualties in British military history. The disastrous Battle of the Somme stretched on for more than four months, with the Allies advancing a total of just five miles.

When World War I broke out in August 1914, great throngs of British men lined up to enlist in the war effort. At the time, it was generally thought that the war would be over within six months. However, by the end of 1914 well over a million soldiers of various nationalities had been killed on the battlefields of Europe, and a final victory was not in sight for either the Allies or the Central Powers. On the Western Front—the battle line that stretched across northern France and Belgium—the combatants had settled down in the trenches for a terrible war of attrition. Maimed and shell-shocked troops returning to Britain with tales of machine guns, artillery barrages, and poison gas seriously dampened the enthusiasm of potential new volunteers.

READ MORE: Why Was the Battle of the Somme So Deadly?

With the aim of raising enough men to launch a decisive offensive against Germany, Britain replaced voluntary service with conscription in January 1916, when it passed an act calling for the enlistment of all unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41. After Germany launched a massive offensive of its own against Verdun in February, Britain expanded the Military Service Act, calling for the conscription of all men, married and unmarried, between the ages of 18 and 41. Near the end of June, with the Battle of Verdun still raging, Britain prepared for its major offensive along a 21-mile stretch of the Western Front north of the Somme River.

For a week, the British bombarded the German trenches as a prelude to the attack. British Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, thought the artillery would decimate the German defenses and allow a British breakthrough; in fact, it served primarily to remove the element of surprise. When the bombardment died down on the morning of July 1, the German machine crews emerged from their fortified trenches and set up their weapons. At 7:30 a.m., 11 British divisions attacked at once, and the majority of them were gunned down. The soldiers optimistically carried heavy supplies for a long march, but few made it more than a couple of hundred yards. Five French divisions that attacked south of the Somme at the same time fared a little better, but without British success little could be done to exploit their gains.

After the initial disaster, Haig resigned himself to smaller but equally ineffectual advances, and more than 1,000 Allied lives were extinguished for every 100 yards gained on the Germans. Even Britain’s September 15 introduction of tanks into warfare for the first time in history failed to break the deadlock in the Battle of the Somme. In October, heavy rains turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, and on November 18 Haig called off the Somme offensive after more than four months of mass slaughter.

READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I

Except for its effect of diverting German troops from the Battle of Verdun, the offensive was a miserable disaster. It amounted to a total gain of just 125 square miles for the Allies, with more than 600,000 British and French soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in the action. German casualties were more than 650,000. Although Haig was severely criticized for the costly battle, his willingness to commit massive amounts of men and resources to the stalemate along the Western Front did eventually contribute to the collapse of an exhausted Germany in 1918.

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John Maynard Keynes predicts economic chaos

Year
1919
Month Day
June 28

At the Palace of Versailles outside Paris, Germany signs the Treaty of Versailles with the Allies, officially ending World War I. The English economist John Maynard Keynes, who had attended the peace conference but then left in protest of the treaty, was one of the most outspoken critics of the punitive agreement. In his The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in December 1919, Keynes predicted that the stiff war reparations and other harsh terms imposed on Germany by the treaty would lead to the financial collapse of the country, which in turn would have serious economic and political repercussions on Europe and the world.

By the fall of 1918, it was apparent to the leaders of Germany that defeat was inevitable in World War I. After four years of terrible attrition, Germany no longer had the men or resources to resist the Allies, who had been given a tremendous boost by the infusion of American manpower and supplies. In order to avert an Allied invasion of Germany, the German government contacted U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in October 1918 and asked him to arrange a general armistice. Earlier that year, Wilson had proclaimed his “Fourteen Points,” which proposed terms for a “just and stable peace” between Germany and its enemies. The Germans asked that the armistice be established along these terms, and the Allies more or less complied, assuring Germany of a fair and unselfish final peace treaty. On November 11, 1918, the armistice was signed and went into effect, and fighting in World War I came to an end.

READ MORE: How the Treaty of Versailles and German Guilt Led to World War II

In January 1919, John Maynard Keynes traveled to the Paris Peace Conference as the chief representative of the British Treasury. The brilliant 35-year-old economist had previously won acclaim for his work with the Indian currency and his management of British finances during the war. In Paris, he sat on an economic council and advised British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, but the important peacemaking decisions were out of his hands, and President Wilson, Prime Minister Lloyd George, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau wielded the real authority. Germany had no role in the negotiations deciding its fate, and lesser Allied powers had little responsibility in the drafting of the final treaty.

It soon became apparent that the treaty would bear only a faint resemblance to the Fourteen Points that had been proposed by Wilson and embraced by the Germans. Wilson, a great idealist, had few negotiating skills, and he soon buckled under the pressure of Clemenceau, who hoped to punish Germany as severely as it had punished France in the Treaty of Frankfurt that ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Lloyd George took the middle ground between the two men, but he backed the French plan to force Germany to pay reparations for damages inflicted on Allied civilians and their property. Since the treaty officially held Germany responsible for the outbreak of World War I (in reality it was only partially responsible), the Allies would not have to pay reparations for damages they inflicted on German civilians.

The treaty that began to emerge was a thinly veiled Carthaginian Peace, an agreement that accomplished Clemenceau’s hope to crush France’s old rival. According to its terms, Germany was to relinquish 10 percent of its territory. It was to be disarmed, and its overseas empire taken over by the Allies. Most detrimental to Germany’s immediate future, however, was the confiscation of its foreign financial holdings and its merchant carrier fleet. The German economy, already devastated by the war, was thus further crippled, and the stiff war reparations demanded ensured that it would not soon return to its feet. A final reparations figure was not agreed upon in the treaty, but estimates placed the amount in excess of $30 billion, far beyond Germany’s capacity to pay. Germany would be subject to invasion if it fell behind on payments.

READ MORE: Germany’s World War I Debt Was So Crushing It Took 92 Years to Pay Off

Keynes, horrified by the terms of the emerging treaty, presented a plan to the Allied leaders in which the German government be given a substantial loan, thus allowing it to buy food and materials while beginning reparations payments immediately. Lloyd George approved the “Keynes Plan,” but President Wilson turned it down because he feared it would not receive congressional approval. In a private letter to a friend, Keynes called the idealistic American president “the greatest fraud on earth.” On June 5, 1919, Keynes wrote a note to Lloyd George informing the prime minister that he was resigning his post in protest of the impending “devastation of Europe.”

The Germans initially refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, and it took an ultimatum from the Allies to bring the German delegation to Paris on June 28. It was five years to the day since the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, which began the chain of events that led to the outbreak of World War I. Clemenceau chose the location for the signing of the treaty: the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles Palace, site of the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt that ended the Franco-Prussian War. At the ceremony, General Jan Christiaan Smuts, soon to be president of South Africa, was the only Allied leader to protest formally the Treaty of Versailles, saying it would do grave injury to the industrial revival of Europe.

At Smuts’ urging, Keynes began work on The Economic Consequences of the Peace. It was published in December 1919 and was widely read. In the book, Keynes made a grim prophecy that would have particular relevance to the next generation of Europeans: “If we aim at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare say, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the later German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilisation and the progress of our generation.”

Germany soon fell hopelessly behind in its reparations payments, and in 1923 France and Belgium occupied the industrial Ruhr region as a means of forcing payment. In protest, workers and employers closed down the factories in the region. Catastrophic inflation ensued, and Germany’s fragile economy began quickly to collapse. By the time the crash came in November 1923, a lifetime of savings could not buy a loaf of bread. That month, the Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler launched an abortive coup against Germany’s government. The Nazis were crushed and Hitler was imprisoned, but many resentful Germans sympathized with the Nazis and their hatred of the Treaty of Versailles.

A decade later, Hitler would exploit this continuing bitterness among Germans to seize control of the German state. In the 1930s, the Treaty of Versailles was significantly revised and altered in Germany’s favor, but this belated amendment could not stop the rise of German militarism and the subsequent outbreak of World War II.

In the late 1930s, John Maynard Keynes gained a reputation as the world’s foremost economist by advocating large-scale government economic planning to keep unemployment low and markets healthy. Today, all major capitalist nations adhere to the key principles of Keynesian economics. He died in 1946.

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Armistice Day: World War I ends

Year
1918
Month Day
November 11

At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Great War ends. At 5 a.m. that morning, Germany, bereft of manpower and supplies and faced with imminent invasion, signed an armistice agreement with the Allies in a railroad car outside Compiégne, France. The First World War left nine million soldiers dead and 21 million wounded, with Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France and Great Britain each losing nearly a million or more lives. In addition, at least five million civilians died from disease, starvation, or exposure.

On June 28, 1914, in an event that is widely regarded as sparking the outbreak of World War I, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, was shot to death with his wife by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Ferdinand had been inspecting his uncle’s imperial armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite the threat of Serbian nationalists who wanted these Austro-Hungarian possessions to join newly independent Serbia. Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the problem of Slavic nationalism once and for all. However, as Russia supported Serbia, an Austro-Hungarian declaration of war was delayed until its leaders received assurances from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany would support their cause in the event of a Russian intervention.

READ MORE: Outbreak of World War I

On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the tenuous peace between Europe’s great powers collapsed. On July 29, Austro-Hungarian forces began to shell the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and Russia, Serbia’s ally, ordered a troop mobilization against Austria-Hungary. France, allied with Russia, began to mobilize on August 1. France and Germany declared war against each other on August 3. After crossing through neutral Luxembourg, the German army invaded Belgium on the night of August 3-4, prompting Great Britain, Belgium’s ally, to declare war against Germany.

For the most part, the people of Europe greeted the outbreak of war with jubilation. Most patriotically assumed that their country would be victorious within months. Of the initial belligerents, Germany was most prepared for the outbreak of hostilities, and its military leaders had formatted a sophisticated military strategy known as the “Schlieffen Plan,” which envisioned the conquest of France through a great arcing offensive through Belgium and into northern France. Russia, slow to mobilize, was to be kept occupied by Austro-Hungarian forces while Germany attacked France.

The Schlieffen Plan was nearly successful, but in early September the French rallied and halted the German advance at the bloody Battle of the Marne near Paris. By the end of 1914, well over a million soldiers of various nationalities had been killed on the battlefields of Europe, and neither for the Allies nor the Central Powers was a final victory in sight. On the western front—the battle line that stretched across northern France and Belgium—the combatants settled down in the trenches for a terrible war of attrition.

READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I

In 1915, the Allies attempted to break the stalemate with an amphibious invasion of Turkey, which had joined the Central Powers in October 1914, but after heavy bloodshed the Allies were forced to retreat in early 1916. The year 1916 saw great offensives by Germany and Britain along the western front, but neither side accomplished a decisive victory. In the east, Germany was more successful, and the disorganized Russian army suffered terrible losses, spurring the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917. By the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia and immediately set about negotiating peace with Germany. In 1918, the infusion of American troops and resources into the western front finally tipped the scale in the Allies’ favor. Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies on November 11, 1918.

READ MORE: Why World War I Ended With an Armistice Instead of a Surrender

World War I was known as the “war to end all wars” because of the great slaughter and destruction it caused. Unfortunately, the peace treaty that officially ended the conflict—the Treaty of Versailles of 1919—forced punitive terms on Germany that destabilized Europe and laid the groundwork for World War II.

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Tanks introduced into warfare at the Somme

Year
1916
Month Day
September 15

During the Battle of the Somme, the British launch a major offensive against the Germans, employing tanks for the first time in history. At Flers Courcelette, some of the 40 or so primitive tanks advanced over a mile into enemy lines but were too slow to hold their positions during the German counterattack and subject to mechanical breakdown. However, General Douglas Haig, commander of Allied forces at the Somme, saw the promise of this new instrument of war and ordered the war department to produce hundreds more.

On July 1, the British launched a massive offensive against German forces in the Somme River region of France. During the preceding week, 250,000 Allied shells had pounded German positions near the Somme, and 100,000 British soldiers poured out of their trenches and into no-man’s-land on July 1, expecting to find the way cleared for them. However, scores of heavy German machine guns had survived the artillery onslaught, and the infantry were massacred. By the end of the day, 20,000 British soldiers were dead and 40,000 wounded. It was the single heaviest day of casualties in British military history.

After the initial disaster, Haig resigned himself to smaller but equally ineffectual advances, and more than 1,000 Allied lives were extinguished for every 100 yards gained on the Germans. Even Britain’s September 15 introduction of tanks into warfare for the first time in history failed to break the deadlock in the Battle of the Somme. In October, heavy rains turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, and on November 18 Haig called off the Somme offensive after more than four months of mass slaughter.

Except for its effect of diverting German troops from the Battle of Verdun, the offensive was a miserable disaster. It amounted to a total advance of just five miles for the Allies, with more than 600,000 British and French soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in action. German casualties were more than 650,000. Although Haig was severely criticized for the costly battle, his willingness to commit massive amounts of men and resources to the stalemate along the western front did eventually contribute to the collapse of an exhausted Germany in 1918.

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American pilots engage in first dogfight over the western front

Year
1918
Month Day
April 14

Six days after being assigned for the first time to the western front, two American pilots from the U.S. First Aero Squadron engage in America’s first aerial dogfight with enemy aircraft. In a battle fought almost directly over the Allied Squadron Aerodome at Toul, France, U.S. fliers Douglas Campbell and Alan Winslow succeeded in shooting down two German two-seaters. By the end of May, Campbell had shot down five enemy aircraft, making him the first American to qualify as a “flying ace” in World War I.

The First Aero Squadron, organized in 1914 after the outbreak of World War I, undertook its first combat mission on March 19, 1917, in support of the 7,000 U.S. troops that invaded Mexico to capture Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Despite numerous mechanical and navigational problems, the American fliers flew hundreds of scouting missions for U.S. Brigadier General John J. Pershing and gained important experience that would later be used over the battlefields of Europe in World War I.

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Zimmermann Telegram presented to U.S. ambassador


Year
1917
Month Day
February 24

During World War I, British authorities give Walter H. Page, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, a copy of the “Zimmermann Telegram,” a coded message from Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign secretary, to Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to Mexico. In the telegram, intercepted and deciphered by British intelligence in late January, Zimmermann stated that in the event of war with the United States, Mexico should be asked to enter the conflict as a German ally. In return, Germany promised to restore to Mexico the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

After receiving the telegram, Page promptly sent a copy to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who in early March allowed the U.S. State Department to publish the note. The press initially treated the telegram as a hoax, but Arthur Zimmermann himself confirmed its authenticity. The Zimmermann Telegram helped turn U.S. public opinion, already severely strained by repeated German attacks on U.S. ships, firmly against Germany. On April 2, President Wilson, who had initially sought a peaceful resolution to end World War I, urged the immediate U.S. entrance into the war. Four days later, Congress formally declared war against Germany.

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U-boat devastates British squadron

Year
1914
Month Day
September 22

In the North Sea, the German U-9 submarine sinks three British cruisers, the Aboukir, the Hogue and the Cressy, in just over one hour. The one-sided battle, during which 1,400 British sailors lost their lives, alerted the British to the deadly effectiveness of the submarine, which had been generally unrecognized up to that time.

The German U-boat was a submarine far more sophisticated than those built by other nations at the time. The typical U-boat was 214 feet long, carried 35 men and 12 torpedoes, and could travel underwater for two hours at a time. In the first few years of World War I, the U-boats took a terrible toll on Allied shipping. Germany’s quarantine of the British Isles was almost successful, but in 1917 unrestricted U-boat attacks on neutral American vessels traveling to Britain prompted the U.S. entrance into the war. The infusion of American ships, troops and arms into World War I turned the tide of the war against Germany.

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