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The Battle of Dorking and its Italian transposition

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In 1871 a booklet was published in the United Kingdom, authored (initially anonimously) by British Army officer George Chesney, titled "The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer". Written as a reaction to the stunning defeat of France by Prussia and its army, it was meant to lobby the cause for a stronger army, and to admonish not to rely solely on the Royal Navy as a means to avoid an invasion of the Isles.

Taking the form of a work of fiction when technical analysis was rejected by newspapers and journals, the novella has this plot:

Spoiler

The book is narrated by a veteran of the events, some fifty years after. The period of peace and prosperity for the British Empire, and the belief that the Royal Navy alone can deal with any threats globally, leads to neglect of the British Army, that finds itself overstretched because of emergencies in India, Canada and Ireland. When the war comes with the German Empire (following its annexation of the Netherlands and Denmark), it is in a poor shape; however, people are confident in the RN (despite being itself kind of overstretched). However, when an invasion attempt is mounted, the British line of battle is shockingly devastated by "fatal engined" (i.e. mines or torpedoes), and the invasion succeeds. The volunteer-based army, not much reinforced by hastily-levied reserve and militia units, is forced to pitched battle at Dorking, and is defeated. The aftermath of the disastrous war is a Great Britain annexed by Germany and its empire taken over by other countries. The novel ends with the narrator encouraging his descendants to take heed from this harsh lesson and build a brighter future for their unhappy land.


In 1872, a "free translation" of the novella was published in Italy, with a similar, yet opposite, objective, titled "Il racconto di un guardiano di spiaggia traduzione libera della battaglia di Dorking".

Instead of advocating a strengthening of the army, the book was meant as a warning of the sad state of the Regia Marina. Despite both it and the Regio Esercito being hit hard by the budget cuts after the unsuccessful Third War of Italian Independence (fought in 1866), it was the former that got hit the worst, as the latter, despite a humiliating defeat at Custoza, kept enjoying the favour of the King, the court and several politicians, unlike the Navy (whose lack of political protection also showed in the way only Admiral Persano, commander at the Battle of Lissa, was put under process for its defeat, despite similar responsibilities weighing on many generals).

Here is the plot, very similar from its British inspiration:

Spoiler

Again, the narrator is a veteran (who was a sentinel on the beach during these events), who writes in the 1890s, twenty years after. He explains how Italy, after the Third War of Independence and the occupation of Rome in 1870, was content and at peace with the other nations (with only some friction with France), and had a period of economic and commercial growth, The army is kept well-prepared and equipped, but the Navy is largely left to its own devices, with few ships left in disrepair, underpaid and unheeded officers and largely untrained crews; moreover, the arsenals and bases are largely devoid of defences, and the moving of the Southern Italy arsenal from Naples to Taranto is stalled for political infighting and bickering.

When war with France breaks out (for unspecified reasons), morale is high, as it is felt that the numerically inferior army can still undefinitely hold the strong positions on the Alps; the navy, however, is in a poor shape, with just nine ironclads (armoured frigated) and ten other ships being fit for service, and the bases being open for assault. When the French Navy (some 40 ships strong, of which thirty-two ironclads) sails from Toulon, the Italian squadron at sea makes for La Spezia; however, when a ship breaks down the Italian admiral refuses to abandon it, and charges at the enemy, and despite putting up a gallant fight (with four of the largest French ships sunk), the outcome is a complete disaster, with seven ironclads sunk, one captured and another barely making port. Four days after, the French fleet attacks La Spezia; with defenses largely unfinished and defenders ill-trained, despite a last stand in two hours all remaining Italian ships, the arsenal and the city are pulverized.

The news cause riots at Naples, where a mob sets fire to the arsenal in hopes of preventing a French attack, forcing the army to send part of its forces there to quell the riot, while the best units are sent north to further reinforce its bulk. Shortly after, a one hundred thousand strong army is landed at the mouth of the Arno river, effectively cutting Italy in two, brushing aside the second-rate units it faces. The undefeated army is forced to abandon its position on the Alps and retreat towards Verona and Mantova, where a week-long battle ensues, ending in an Italian defeat; meanwhile, French ships scour the Italian coasts, levying requisitions from cities and capturing or burning all merchantmen. Italy is forced to surrender.

The peace results in large portions of Italy being ceded to France (Sicily, Sardinia, half of Liguria including Genoa, and the dominant positions on the Alps), a large war reparations sum being imposed together with forced demilitarization.

Again, the narrator admonishes his descendants to learn from their humiliation, and to remember how his generation was punished for forgetting how their sea was an italian sea, instead trusting too much their own army.


Other than its obvious aim, this booklet is interesting from many points of view.

First, it shows how much the example of Lissa had been absorbed, as what little is said about the naval battle bears a strong resemblance (implying that the Italian squadron mirrored the tactics used by Von Tegetthoff at Lissa, keeping his ships tight and going straight for the enemy). In the rendition of the naval assault against La Spezia and the subsequent invasion of Italy, it reminds of the discussion had before the war among the Regia Marina (which echoed in parliamentary works and discussions) about a possible use of Italian seapower to assault positions (chiefly, Venice, despite its strong defenses) in the Adriatic Sea, instead of a mere orthodox role of achieving supremacy by defeating the opposing fleet.

Moreover, it's also interesting in its pointing at France as the chosen enemy, as this would become a mainstay of Italian military thought after the decline of Italo-French relations then in progress and that would continue in the following years and decades. In fact, the Roman question had much strained relationship and, together with Italy's bad financial situation, had effectively nullified the chance of Italy coming to France's aid during the Franco-Prussian War; however, this didn't stop some Frenchmen to resent Italy's seeming "ingratitude", nor didn't it prevent the novel Third Republic from inheriting some rust from previous issues (as late as 1874 the French paddle frigate L'Orénoque remained anchored at Civitavecchia, in case the Pope decided he wanted to leave Rome). The possibility of having to challenge the then-largely superior French fleet, and the chance of a possible seaborne invasion (and the mouth of the Arno river would be long considered one of the most likely places for it to happen) would become staples of the discussions among the Regia Marina for the next forty years, up to the Great War.

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