ALTHOUGH Italy is a military nation, her militarism is by no means aggressive, by which I mean to say that there is none of that friction between soldiers and civilians which so frequently occurs in countries where the Army is placed on a pedestal apart from and above other sections of the community. Notwithstanding that Rome is the headquarters of an Army Corps, and that the garrison of the city consists of about ten thousand men, the military element is singularly unobtrusive when compared with that existing in other continental capitals. The officers who are admitted into the alta societâ of the Italian capital are extremely few in number ; and these few, as a rule, belong to the cavalry regiments, into which the nobiltà for the most part prefer to enter. As a matter of fact, the officers of the infantry regiments do not, in the majority of cases, greatly differ from their non-commissioned officers and men in birth and breeding ; and, indeed, it is by no means uncommon to find a private soldier who is a far more polished gentleman than very many who are his military superiors. The longer I live in Italy the more I realise that education, at all events among Italians, in no way implies refinement of tastes and ideas, and that those subtle qualities which go to make what we call a gentleman are inherent in countless Italians whose schooling has from force of circumstances been limited to what his native paese could supply.
Conscription, as everybody knows, is in force in Italy. With certain exceptions all who have reached the age of twenty are obliged to serve in the Army or the Navy. In the former the term of service, except in the cavalry regiments, has lately been reduced from three to two years. But even at the conclusion of this term an Italian is not a free man until he has reached the age of forty. He may at any moment be called upon to undergo periodical trainings in camp, or to take part in manoeuvres. It is obvious that such a system must entail an immense dislocation in civil life, and that it must frequently cause serious detriment to the private interests of the individuals from whom such a sacrifice is demanded. The fact, however, that this sacrifice is, on the whole, cheerfully made by the modern Italians is a proof that the common advantages ensuing from it outweigh the undoubted hardships it involves. That conscription is, or ever can be, popular either in Italy or elsewhere could only be maintained by a confirmed militarist. It is, unquestionably, the most odious form of interference with the liberty of the subject. I do not suppose that there exists an Italian who does not recognise it as an evil ; but neither do I imagine that it would be easy to find one who was not ready to admit that it is an evil which has been productive of inestimable good. Few people who have not lived side by side with the lower classes in Italy, and who have not had occasion to be behind the scenes of their daily existence, can, I think, realise the prodigious sacrifice that universal conscription entails on a nation. On the other hand, none but these, perhaps, can better estimate the enormous advantages, both physical and moral, that it brings in its train.
When one sees a young lad who, perhaps, is gaining not only his own livelihood, but adding to that of his parents, obliged to give up his employment for two whole years in order to serve in the Army ; when one knows that instead of the earnings he has placed at their disposal for the good of the family, his parents have to supply him with money in order that he may have means to provide himself with food and drink more palatable than that with which he will be supplied by the military authorities when one sees some promising young employé or artisan compelled to relinquish a hardly won post at the very outset of his careerthen one is apt to curse conscription and wonder at the patience of a people that can submit to its tyranny. But when, on the other hand, one compares the youth who returns to his native village or town with the same youth who left it as a conscript, one is obliged to confess that he has usually been the gainer by his sacrifice. In nine cases out of ten he returns from his military service a stronger man both physically and morally than when he entered it ; and if he does not do so, it is fairly certain that under any circumstances he would have been no credit either to himself or the community. He has experienced discipline, and through discipline he has learned to command not only himself but others. Any one who has followed the vicissitudes of Italian rural life will have had occasion to observe the effect of two or three years of discipline and military training on peasant lads and on youths in the small country towns. He will notice, too, how superior the men who have returned from military service in the last six or seven years are to those who served their term previous to this period.
The conditions of military life have been steadily improving in Italy under the reign of the present sovereign. As Prince of Naples, King Victor made himself thoroughly acquainted with every detail of the soldier’s life ; and in the ameliorations which have taken place in that life in the last few years his influence may in all probability be traced. Formerly the soldier was regarded as little more than a machine by the military authorities. Little was done either to educate him or to raise him in his own estimation. Barracks were, in the majority of cases, merely monastic buildings hastily re-adapted to secular purposes, and lacking everything conducive to sanitation and personal cleanliness ; while little or no attempt was made to provide reading and recreation rooms for the men. The enforcement of a rigid discipline was considered to be the only duty of the State towards those who were to be its slaves for three or more years, and this, unaccompanied by any refining element, tended rather to brutalise than to elevate the soldier’s character. Nowadays, however, all this is changed. The Italian soldier is no longer treated as little better than an ox or a mule. The military authorities have recognised that strict discipline is by no means incompatible with civilising and refining elements in barrack life. Education, study, and legitimate recreations are encouraged, and the modern barracks, especially in Rome, are models of their kind. Men are no longer obliged, as formerly, to go out of barracks in order to find the commodities of civilised life ; and leisure hours are not, in consequence, invariably wasted in idling about the cities and frequenting undesirable places. The effects produced by this introduction of more civilising elements into the soldier’s life are, as I have said, fully apparent. Not only does the average conscript return to his home a far more useful and efficient member of society than he was when he left it, but the unpopularity of enforced military service has been greatly reduced. There is, perhaps, room for still further improvement in these ways ; but so much has been done even in the last five or six years to raise the tone of barrack life, and to encourage self-respect in the soldier, that doubtless the conscript of ten years hence will enjoy advantages as great by comparison as those which the conscript of to-day enjoys when these are compared with the experiences of his predecessors.
The Italian soldier’s day begins early. In the spring and summer months the risveglio sounds from the bugles at 4.30 a.m., and in winter an hour later. Then, if he chooses, before drill or instruction he can have some black coffee and a piece of bread. At ten o’clock the rancio is served out, consisting of soup and the boiled meat from which it has been made, and a measured quantity of brown bread.
Wine is supplied once a week in barracks, and twice daily in camp and on marches. After this more drill until twelve o’clock, when two hours’ repose is obligatory, and the men are supposed to spend them in sleep. From two o’clock till half-past four or five there is more drill or instruction, and at five the soldier is free to leave barracks until nine o’clock in summer and half-past eight in winter. By those hours, unless he have a permessowhich to men of good conduct is accorded readily enoughhe must present himself in barracks again. A permesso usually extends the hours of liberty until eleven o’clock ; but if granted nominally for the purpose of going to the theatre, it may be prolonged until midnight, or even one o’clock. Half an hour after the bugles have sounded the ritirata they sound the silenzioand after this no talking is permitted in the dormitories. The private soldiers usually sleep twelve in a room, and in each room an electric light is kept burning through the night. This routine, of course, is perpetually being varied by long marches both by night and day, and in the summer months by instruction camps and manoeuvres. The marches undertaken by such regiments as the Bersaglieri, who march at the rate of five miles an hour over any ground, and the Granatieri, are often extremely severe, sixty miles not being considered anything specially remarkable.
Perhaps the most disagreeable of the many duties Italian soldiers are called upon to fulfil is that of maintaining public law and order in times of strikes and social and political agitation. The Army, indeed, may be said to exist quite as much to defend Italy against internal enemies as against external ones. The patience and good-temper with which the troops often meet the grossest provocation on the part of unruly and ignorant mobs are worthy of all praise. But it is not only at moments of social unrest that the Italian soldier is called upon to display his discipline and, very often, his personal courage. It is considered incumbent on any man wearing the King’s uniform to render aid wherever it may be needed for the protection of life and property, and for the repression of crime. In cases, too, of disasters owing-tom earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other causes, the troops are the first to bring assistance and encouragement where, it must be confessed, the civil authorities have not unfrequently displayed considerable incompetence and carelessness. It is no wonder, therefore, that the nation at large regards the Army as a protector at home, and as a great moral weapon available at any moment against the unruly forces not only of humanity, but also against those of Nature, to the violences of which whole districts and populations are apt to be suddenly exposed.
The fine horsemanship of the Italian cavalry is now recognised all over Europe ; and any one who is fortunate enough to assist at one of the practices at Tor di Quinto just outside Rome will see marvellous feats performed by both officers and troopers. A magnificent corps, too, is that of the Corazzierithe King’s Body-Guard. It must be owned that for smartness, and for the physique of its members, as well as for the tout ensemble of men and horses, the Corazzieri are far more imposing than our own Household Cavalry. It must be remembered, however, that they are all picked men, numbering not more than a hundred to a hundred and fifty in all. It is difficult to believe that the large majority of the Corazzieri are peasants. They are, as a rule, magnificent specimens of humanitytall, well-made, and comely of feature. Moreover, a very few months in the atmosphere of royal functions and palaces rid them of all uncouthness ; for the Italians of all classes are nothing if not adaptable ; and, at any rate, an out-ward refinement of manners and habits comes easily enough, as a rule, even to the lowest.
As is the case in all countries, I suppose, the Italian soldier knows instinctively whether the officers of his company are veri signori, or not. It is also the case in Italy, as elsewhere, that the officers who are gentlemen by birth and breeding are almost invariably far more just and considerate to their men than those who are not so. Unfortunately, as I have before mentioned, the Italian officer is very often inferior in all ways, save for a certain education that his purse has been long enough to procure for him, to many of the men under his command and not the least hard part of the salutary discipline that many an Italian private soldier has to undergo is that of submitting to sometimes unreasonable caprices of an officer whom he knows to be in every way his social inferior, and in many ways perhaps his moral and intellectual inferior also. It is true that a conscript belonging to the wealthier classes may, by paying a sum of twelve hundred francs, serve for a year only as a volontario, and these last have certain minor privileges accorded to them. These, however, do not exempt them from being obliged to perform the same duties and lead the same life as any peasant or working-man who is serving for the full term. He sleeps and eats with these last, and is one of them while on duty or in barracks ; and it is only during his hours of liberty that he may dissociate himself from them and go his own way. By no means all, however, can afford to find this sum of twelve hundred francs, even among the educated and better-born conscripts ; and it is to such as these that the military service is the most disagreeablefor reasons that are obvious. Nevertheless, I have known more than one young lad, gentlemen in every sense of the word, decline to allow their parents to make any pecuniary sacrifice to enable them to join as volontarî ; and some, too, I have known of who, although perfectly able to pay the required money, have preferred to go through their full term of service for the sake of experience and adventure.
The percentage of those who elect to remain in the Army as a profession (apart, of course, from the officers) is very small. In the general way the victim to conscription regards his term of military service in precisely the same manner as a school-boy regards the term he has to spend at school. His thoughts are perpetually centred on the day when he will be called up before his colonel to receive his congedo, and during his last few months in the Army he counts the days and weeks, as we most of us can remember doing when our school term was drawing to its close. This, no doubt, will be taken as evidence of an entire lack of the military spirit ; and there can be no question that this spirit is not naturally inherent in the average Italian ; nor do I, for one, consider that he is the worse for its comparative absence. I believe, on the contrary, that this very absence of militarism adds a thousand-fold to the credit of the Italian soldier. He has little hope of earning honour or glory, and none at all of earning profit ; for, indeed, he is always considerably out of pocket by the sacrifice he is making for his country. He does not want to fight anybody, and the idea of warfare against other nations is as a rule profoundly distasteful to him. Nevertheless, he would defend his own country with the last drop of his blood ; and he fully recognises that until better counsels prevail abroad, and wiser heads control the masses at home, his country must perforce maintain a large-standing Army and Navy.
Considering all that the average Italian conscript gives up, and the duties he is called upon to discharge ; considering that from the time he is twenty until he has reached forty he cannot call himself a free man ; considering, too, that soldiering is often absolutely repugnant to his nature and ideas, I venture to doubt whether there be any nation that could show so universal a spirit of quiet and unobtrusive determination and self-sacrifice as that shown by the modern Italians. That the one war into which they were forced against their will by unscrupulous speculators of the worst kind ended disastrously can never fairly be brought forward as a proof of want of courage or lack of discipline on the part of the Italian soldier. That story is too discreditable a one to be enlarged upon in these pages ; neither should we English, of all nations, be justified in bringing it forward. The tragic days of the Abyssinian campaign, however, reflected no discredit on the Italian soldiers who fought in it ; but only on those who without common foresight or methods of organisation sent them to fight against overwhelming odds in a corrupt cause, which was certainly not national, however much it may have been individual.