“More than Ever, We Feel Proud
to Be Italians”
The event that proved most decisive in pulling the New Haven colonia into the war effort took place three thousand miles away, near the small town of Caporetto. There, in the early hours of October 24, 1917, a combined Austrian and German force smashed the Italian Army's lines. By midafternoon Italy had lost all of the ground it had gained in the previous twoand-a-half years of fighting, and by nightfall the front had collapsed seventeen miles in what had been one of the most immobile theaters of the war. The Italians did not halt the enemy advance until November 10. By that time their losses were staggering. Forty thousand men were killed or wounded; roughly 300,000 were taken prisoner and nearly as many stragglers deserted their units and fled to safety. 1
Caporetto was also a catastrophe for the civilian population. Close to half a million refugees were caught in the crossfire. Inevitably their escape clogged the roads the army needed for its retreat, producing a human quagmire of soldiers who had thrown down their weapons and peasants who had gathered whatever belongings and livestock they could save. Venice, only fifteen miles from the Austro-German advance, evacuated in desperation. The city's population of 160,000 fell to 20,000 almost overnight.
Except for a brief period in the spring of 1916, Italy had always been on the offensive and fighting on enemy soil. Thus the disaster at Caporetto left New Haven's Italians stunned. A clergyman encountered a group of immigrants weeping openly in the street over the news that their native village had been captured. “This brings the dark side of the war close to us,” he commented. A reporter covering the reaction in Wooster Square agreed: “Interest in the war is at fever intensity…The great reverses reported in the press are the topic of conversation wherever Italians meet.” 2
The immigrant population manifested this “fever intensity” in either the most personalized or the most patriotic terms. Consul Nicola Mariani, the Italian government's spokesman in the area, flatly denied all reports of cow