The Battle of Monte Cassino began when Allied forces launched the first of four attacks against the Gustav Line in Italy.
The Gustav Line, which together with the Bernhardt and Hitler lines formed a series of defences known as the Winter Line, had been established by the Germans and Italians to defend Rome from a northern advance by the Allies. The Allied forces had secured a foothold in Italy in Operation Avalanche the previous September, having first captured Sicily.
By early January 1944 the Allies had advanced a long way north, but their progress had been stopped by poor weather that forced them to approach Rome along Highway 6 that ran from Naples through the Liri valley. The southern entrance to the valley was dominated by the town of Cassino and overlooked by the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino.
Although the German army did not position defensive units in the abbey itself, the natural topography gave them a notable advantage over the Allies. Combined with minefields that had been laid in advance, the strong German position withstood the first assault that lasted for two and a half weeks and involved troops under British, American and French command attacking the position from three sides.
German forces finally withdrew on 17 May, and the following morning soldiers from the Polish 12th Podolian Cavalry Regiment raised a Polish flag over the ruins. The four assaults that made up the Battle of Monte Cassino had led to 55,000 Allied casualities and destroyed the ancient abbey. The treasures it contained had been evacuated to Rome in November 1943.
On the 5th December 1934, the Wal-Wal Incident took place which laid the foundations for the Abyssinia Crisis. A skirmish between a Somali garrison in the service of Italy, and Ethiopian troops who sought the withdrawal of Italian forces from the area, resulted in over 150 deaths and a diplomatic crisis that ended in the Italian invasion of Abyssinia the following year.
A 1928 treaty had agreed the boundary between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia. However, in 1930 Italy built a fort at the Wal-Wal oasis that was approximately 50 miles inside the Abyssinian side of the border and so contravened the agreement.
At first the Italian presence was tolerated by the Abyssinians with their only response being an increase in their military personnel in the area. However, in November 1934 a force of approximately 1000 Abyssinian soldiers arrived at the fort and demanded it be handed over: this demand was refused by the garrison’s commander.
The following day, a group of British and Abyssinian surveyors arrived at the fort and found themselves caught up in the dispute. The British withdrew in order to avoid any bloodshed, but the Abyssinians stayed and joined their countrymen in a face-off with the garrison. Although the exact cause of the skirmish that began on the 5th December is unclear, it’s generally accepted that neither side tried particularly hard to avoid it.
Despite this, both sides protested the actions of the other. While Abyssinia went to the League of Nations, Italy outright demanded compensation. The diplomatic crisis that ensued eventually led to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in October 1935.
Pietro Leopoldo, the ruler of Tuscany, came to power in 1765 after his father, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, died. Pietro Leopoldo later became Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, but in the years immediately after his father’s death his mother Maria Theresa co-ruled the empire with his elder brother Joseph II. After five years Leopold successfully obtained a free hand to rule Tuscany as he liked after he travelled to Vienna where his mother agreed to remove her appointed counsellors.
Leopold was an enlightened ruler who revitalised Tuscany’s economy through the introduction of new rates of taxation and the creation of public works projects. His habit of spending revenues on improving the state was in sharp contrast to the government of the Medici family who had preceded his father, but had a broadly positive impact on Tuscany’s financial position.
A year before Leopold came to power in Tuscany, the Italian Enlightenment writer Cesare Beccaria condemned torture and the death penalty in his famed treatise On Crimes and Punishments. The book, which proposed radical reform of the criminal system, influenced Leopold to stop signing death warrants and after 1769 no executions took place in Tuscany.
On 30 November 1786 Leopold formally abolished the death sentence as well as banning the use of torture. All instruments used for administering the death penalty were also destroyed. The day is now celebrated as Cities for Life Day on which numerous cities around the world show their commitment to the abolition of the death penalty.
On the 25th November 1936, Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact. Although directed against the Communist International, the international organisation that sought to create a worldwide communist republic, the treaty was in reality specifically against the Soviet Union.
The idea for an anti-Communist alliance had first been suggested in late 1935, as Hitler and Mussolini sought to present themselves as upholding traditional values in the face of Soviet Communism. However, the plan stagnated while the German foreign ministry weighed up the pros and cons of an alliance with the arch-enemy of their traditional Chinese ally.
By summer 1936 the military were an increasingly dominant force in Japan’s government. Meanwhile Europe was beginning to fear the implications of the Franco-Soviet Alliance that went into effect at the end of March. As a result Hitler pushed ahead with the Pact in the hope of securing an Anglo-German alliance as a result.
The Pact didn’t result in Hitler’s desired alliance with Britain, but did later expand to include Italy. Mussolini’s decision to join with Germany and Japan on the 6th November 1937, two years after the collapse of the Stresa Front with France and Britain, led to the formation of what was to become known as the Axis Alliance.
The Anti-Comintern Pact specifically stated that the signatories would not make any political treaties with the Soviet Union. However, on the 23rd August 1939, Germany signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This caused a rift with Japan, but the relationship began to heal following the later Tripartite Pact in September 1940.
On the 11th November 1918, fighting on the First World War’s Western Front ended when representatives from the Allies and Germany signed the Armistice of Compiègne. Named after the location in which it was signed, the armistice was agreed at around 5:00 a.m. in a railway carriage that was part of Allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch’s private train. Designed to come into effect at 11:00 a.m. Paris time, the armistice was extended three times before the Treaty of Versailles finally came into force on the 10th January 1920.
President Woodrow Wilson of the USA had outlined his war aims in the Fourteen Points that he announced in a speech in January 1918. These provided a framework for peace, and were a key factor in encouraging Germany to enter negotiations.
By the end of September, the German High Command had realised that the German cause on the Western Front was doomed. The Kaiser was informed of the situation on the 29th September, and by the 5th October the German government had contacted President Wilson of the United States to begin preparations for negotiating an armistice. However, the two sides didn’t come together until the 8th November because Britain, France and Italy were unwilling to enter discussing based on the 14 Points. By this point the German Revolution was about to result in the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The negotiation wasn’t really a negotiation: the German delegation was presented with the terms and had no option but to sign. The railway carriage in which they did so was later used by Hitler for France’s surrender to Nazi Germany in 1940.
On the 1st November 1911, the first aerial bombing took place when Italian Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades on Turkish troops in Libya. Although unmanned balloons had been used by Austrian troops to carry bombs in their war against in Venice in 1849, Gavotti was the first to drop explosives from a manned aeroplane. The four 4-pound grenades that he dropped caused no injuries, but his action was still widely condemned by the international community. Despite this, within three years aerial bombing had become an established part of modern warfare.
The weakness of the Ottoman Empire demonstrated by Italy’s victory in the Italo-Turkish War is seen by some historians as a contributor to the rise of Balkan nationalism that preceded the First World War. Indeed the First Balkan War was launched while Turkey was still fighting the Italians in Libya. The Italo-Turkish War was also significant for its impact on the use of aircraft for military purposes. As well carrying out as the world’s first aerial bombing, the Italians were also responsible for conducting the first ever aerial reconnaissance mission a week earlier.
Gavotti himself was flying a reconnaissance mission when he decided to drop the four grenades from his Taube monoplane. Although nobody was injured during the attack, the Ottoman Empire complained that aerial bombing contravened the Hague Convention of 1899. However, Italy argued that the agreement specifically stated that bombs could not be dropped from balloons and said nothing about bombs dropped from aircraft. However, it’s probably worth pointing out that the aeroplane hadn’t even been invented when the agreement in question was signed.
Mussolini, who was determined to restore the glory of the Roman Empire following the ‘mutilated victory’ of the First World War, had formed the precursor to the Fascist Party in 1919. His skill as an orator, the intimidating power of his Blackshirts, and the relative weaknesses of the existing liberal government all contributed to the speed at which the Fascists gained influence.
On 24 October 1922 Mussolini went on stage at the Fascist Congress in Naples to declare his willingness to use the power of the Fascist movement to overthrow the government of liberal Prime Minister Luigi Facta. Four days later approximately 30,000 Blackshirts from around the country gathered in the capital in an event known as the March on Rome. As they filled the streets and occupied public buildings, they called for Facta’s resignation.
The Prime Minister chose to oppose the attempted revolution, but King Victor Emmanuel III refused his request to declare martial law. Stunned by the King’s rejection of military action, Facta offered his resignation which was immediately accepted. Victor Emmanuel later invited Mussolini to form a government, whose cabinet was sworn in on 31 October in front of the King himself.
The establishment of Mussolini’s government was greeted by a victory march by tens of thousands of Blackshirts. In time the March on Rome would achieve mythical status among Fascists as a revolutionary seizure of power, but the reality is that Mussolini was granted power the King. Within a few years, however, he would transform the country into a dictatorship.
On the 26th October 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi met with Victor Emanuel II, the King of Sardinia, at Teano and handed him control of southern Italy. Hailing him as King of Italy, Garibaldi’s surrender of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies effectively ended any hope for an Italian republic but was one of the most significant events in the unification of the peninsula.
Garibaldi landed with his ‘Thousand’ – better known as the Redshirts – on the island of Sicily on the 11th May. The number of troops under his command quadrupled within just three days and so, on the 14th, Garibaldi proclaimed himself dictator of Sicily in the name of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy.
Within a fortnight he had besieged the Sicilian capital of Palermo, where many of the inhabitants joined with him and began to attack the Neapolitan garrison. Despite the arrival of 25,000 reinforcements the Neapolitans surrendered the city following an armistice facilitated by a British admiral, but not before the city had been virtually reduced to rubble.
Further difficult battles followed, but by the start of September Garibaldi had crossed to the mainland and taken control of Naples after the king fled with his army. However, he was not yet defeated, and still had the support of around 25,000 soldiers. At the Battle of Volturno, Garibaldi’s Redshirts were only successful against them thanks to the arrival of the Piedmontese Army who made it clear that they would not allow Garibaldi to march on Rome. When Victor Emmanuel arrived on the 26th October therefore, Garibaldi handed over his territory and retired to the island of Caprera.
The Italian government of Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti launched its invasion of Libya in order to formalise its influence in the provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica amidst the declining power of the Ottoman Empire. Having sent an ultimatum to the Ottoman government that was not accepted in full, war was declared on 29 September 1911.
Carlo Piazza formally qualified as a pilot in April 1911, and soon took control of the Royal Italian Army air detachment having proved himself as a talented racing pilot. When the Italo-Turkish War broke out later that year, the Italian military transported its entire fleet of nine aircraft to Tripoli following the prediction of aviation theorist Giulio Douhet that aircraft would cause significant problems for the enemy.
Having arrived in Libya by steamship, the Italian aircraft were brought on shore after the 20,000 ground troops began disembarking their ships on 10 October. The Italians soon found that the Ottoman defence was stronger than they had expected and, during a standoff near Benghazi, Piazza made history’s first reconnaissance flight when he observed the Turkish lines from a Blériot XI aircraft. This type of machine, powered by a 25-horsepower, three-cylinder engine, had famously made the first flight across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft in 1909.
Barely a week later the Italo-Turkish War would also see the first ever aerial bombing, when Italian Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades from his Taube monoplane. Later in the conflict, the Turkish military was the first to shoot down an aircraft with rifle fire.
Michelangelo’s David is considered to be one of the greatest examples of Renaissance sculpture. Carved from a piece of marble from a quarry near the Tuscan town of Carrara, the statue is a nude male standing 517cm tall without his pedestal.
Michelangelo was not the first artist to begin carving a statue of David from the marble block. The Florentine sculptor Agostino di Duccio had first been contracted by the Overseers of the Office of Works of Florence Cathedral in 1464 to create the statue as one of twelve figures to appear on the buttresses of the recently-completed cathedral. Having begun to shape the feet and legs, he stopped work on the statue in 1466 and work only resumed a decade later when Antonio Rossellino took over.
Rossellino did not do much more to the marble before his contract was terminated shortly after it had been awarded. The block then remained on its back in the cathedral yard for 25 years before Michelangelo was recruited to complete the statue two years after he finished work on the Pietà.
The 26 year old was given two years to produce David and, according to the written contract, was to be paid ‘six broad florins of gold in gold for every month’. Dr Barrie Cook of the British Museum has since used the Bank of England’s price inflation index to calculate that Michelangelo was therefore paid just £40,000 at today’s prices for the finished piece.
On its completion the sculpture was placed next to the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, although it has been displayed in the Accademia Gallery since 1873 to protect the fragile marble.