Saturday, May 23, 2015

May 23rd, 1915

- Though Prime Minister Salandra has long desired Italian entry into the war on the side of the Entente, he has kept knowledge of the timing of a declaration of war a closely guarded secret; notably, the armed forces have not been informed when war is to commence.  Indeed, for several weeks the heads of the army and navy have been pleading with Salandra for information on when war is expected to begin, but to no avail.  Only at noon today does the naval general staff learn that hostilities will commence at midnight, and only through an informal telephone call from an official at the foreign ministry.  Meanwhile, at 430pm Salandra officially notifies the minister of war that the declaration of war is about to be handed to the Austro-Hungarian government.  Salandra's reasoning has been to avoid any preparatory measure that might allow Austria-Hungary to argue that Italy had committed an act of aggression prior to a declaration of war.  In practice, however, it leads to the astonishing situation where the Italian government has known for four weeks that Italy is going to enter the war, but the armed forces are actually unprepared to commence hostilities when the day comes.

Meanwhile, this morning Foreign Minister Sonnino learns that the Italian ambassador in Vienna never received yesterday's telegram containing the declaration of war, and confesses to his fellow ministers that it all likelihood it was intercepted and deciphered by the Austro-Hungarians.  A second telegram is thus dispatched at 2pm, and two hours later the ambassador formally presents it to the Austro-Hungarian government, informing it that hostilities will commence as of midnight.

Crucially, the Italian government very deliberately decides not to declare war on Germany today, in part at least to avoid Germany sending significant forces to fight on the Italian frontier.  Nor does Italy declare war on the Ottoman Empire; indeed, diplomatic relations remain intact and the Ottoman embassy in Rome remains open, providing a perfect base for espionage against Italy.  This means that Italy does not actually fulfill the requirement of the Treaty of London to go to war against all enemies of the Entente, a very great irony considering how much bluster will issue forth from Italian representatives later in the war and afterwards regarding faithful adherence to the agreement.

Notably, Germany does not declare war on Italy either.  It prefers to leave open the possibility of Italian goods entering Germany through neutral Switzerland, as occurred during the period of Italian neutrality, and thus leave open a path around the British naval blockade.  The Germans also feared that a declaration of war against Italy might trigger Romania to enter the war on the side of the Entente.  Unsurprisingly this decision is unpopular in Vienna, but it is equally unsurprising that Austro-Hungarian displeasure is of no great concern to the Germans.

- Enver Pasha dispatches a message to the German government today, requesting the arrival of German submarines in the eastern Mediterranean to attack the Entente fleet off the Dardanelles.  The appeal is unnecessary - German submarines are about to make their presence felt it dramatic fashion.

- For the past two weeks, the landing party of the German light cruiser Emden have been travelling along the Hedjaz railway.  At numerous stops they have been met by German and Ottoman officials, as well as cheering crowds.  They have obtained new clothing for the first time in six months, and during a stop at Aleppo received mail from home.  This afternoon their train pulls into the station at Haider Pasha, the Asiatic terminus of the Hedjaz railway across from Constantinople.  Now attired in dress uniforms, the sailors disembark and stand in formation before Admiral Souchon and his staff.  Their journey is complete when First Officer Mücke lowers his sword before Souchon and states: 'I report the landing squad from the Emden, five officers, seven petty officers, and thirty men strong.'

After a six month journey that has taken them from the Dutch East Indies through Arabia, punctuated by a series of adventures and near-mishaps that could hardly have been invented if they had not actually happened, the landing party has managed against all odds to evade capture and return to the fight.  Moreover, the saga of the landing party has captured the attention of the world: in the midst of the hellish stalemate and impersonal slaughter of the Western Front, their voyage has shown that scope for heroism and adventure remain even in the darkest war in human history.  Even beyond Germany, Mücke's leadership is celebrated, and the British press, ever willing to celebrate the underdog, applauds the exploits of the landing party.

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