Man Versus Man

Trieste Soldiers

About 50,000 men from Austrian Trieste – Italian, Slovenian and Croatian – are called to arms during the conflict, mainly enrolled in the 97th Infantry Regiment (k.u.k. General Graf von Waldstätten) and in the 20th Hunting Battalion (Feldjägerbataillon) with 50% Italians, 30% Slovenians and 20% Croats in the 5th Regiment (k.k. Landwehr) Pola with 60% Italians. Many others are enrolled in the 22nd and 4th artillery regiments, the 5th Regiment of Dragoons and the k.u.k. Kriegsmarine.

In action between September-October 1914 on the eastern front against the Russians in Lemberg (Lvov), the 97th Regiment loses more than half its men. It takes part in the recapture of the Austrian fortress of Przemysl, to be then moved to the Carpathian Mountains. The 5th Pola sees action on the Balkan front and in the Carpathians. A marching battalion of the 97th Regiment fights on the Isonzo front until October 1915. In May 1918 Italian and Slovenian national elements of the 97th Regiment rise up in the Radkersburg barracks and the rebellion is quashed with eight shots.

Deserters and Decorated

From the Battle of Lemberg (Lvov), in which the 97th Regiment lost about half of its force, the legend of the Demoghèla was born (let’s fight, let’s run); the famous folk song that amid individual irredentism and indifference, denigrates the reluctance of Trieste soldiers to fight, preferring to flee and desert.

In the hotchpotch of nationalities that make up the Austro-Hungarian army, high officials consider Italians and especially those from Trieste as being poorly blessed with fighting spirit, perhaps because they are citizens of a large city centre, not prone to sacrifice and effort. The vast areas of the eastern front are complicit in either aiding deserters or producing prisoners, but many others, despite the circumstances, perform their duty, gaining recognition in the field.


Subjects of the Kingdom

In the last few days of Italian neutrality, thanks to the mediation of the American Consulate, around 35,000 regnicoli, Italian people living and working in the city of |Trieste, receive their repatriation papers. Many do not leave: considered to now belong to an enemy country, 14,748 of them are initially interned in various refugee camps in Austria-Hungary.

Later, 9,866 people, mostly women, children and the elderly, are sent via Switzerland into Italy and resettled in various locations in the peninsula. 2,987 people, mostly men of fighting age, remain interned in the camps, while a further 1,895 are confined in various locations elsewhere. During the course of 1919, 39,483 ‘former’ regnicoli return to Trieste and to their homes.

Irredentist Volunteers


Between 1915 and 1916, a number of Austrian citizens, many of whom belonged to the Italian bourgeoisie, are arrested on suspicion of spying or being sympathizers of the enemy and therefore potentially dangerous. A total 354 of these are imprisoned in internment camps in Mittergrabern, Göllersdorf, or Weyerburg or otherwise confined at other locations in Austria-Hungary.

A further 175 individuals are interned on the grounds of maintaining public order, among them the politically suspect, anarchists and prostitutes. In early 1918, following the events of Caporetto, security policy becomes less restrictive and many inmates are allowed to return to Trieste.

Irredentist Volunteers

In total, 1,047 irredentists flee Trieste to enlist as volunteers in the Italian army, amongst them students, professionals, employees and artisans, largely from the Italian lower-middle and middle-classes. Of these volunteers, 881 are actively involved in armed combat on the Italian-Austrian front, including many regnicoli (subjects of the Kingdom).
While often regarded with suspicion by both their fellow soldiers and the Army High Command, approximately half reach the rank of Officer, often obtained in merit of their contribution to the war. As many as 182 die in battle, including Scipio Slataper, Carlo Stuparich, and Ruggero Timeus. The remaining 166 volunteers counted at the end of the war are Italian speaking soldiers from the Habsburg army, now Russian prisoners, who in 1917, in accordance with agreements reached between Italy to Russia, choose to enlist in the Italian Expeditionary Corps in the Far East.


Irredentist Prisoners

Irredentist Prisoners

From mid-1916, Italy invites over 25,000 Italian-speaking Austro-Hungarian prisoners from Trentino and the autonomous regions of Trieste, Istria and Gradisca-Gorizia) to renounce their Austrian nationality and be repatriated to Italy forthwith without being required to sign up. Between October and November 1916, more than 4,000 Trentini and Giuliani detainees from the Kirsanov prison camp reach Italy by sea, most of them becoming employees in local arms factories. In the winter of 1917, a further 2,500 Italian-speaking former prisoners, including 900 Giuliani, are transferred to Vladivostok and are enrolled in the Italian Expeditionary Corps in the Far East, working with other allied forces, against the Bolsheviks.

From September 1918, approximately 300 Italians, including a hundred Triestine, leave Samara, led by ‘Captain’ Compatangelo, to embark on an adventurous and perilous journey to Vladivostok. From there, several contingents are transferred to Tientsin in China. It is not until as late as 1920 that these men return, after a long and difficult journey, to Italy.