Rome, night view of the “Vittoriano”, with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

A hundred years ago in Italy: looking forward, with deep roots in the past

As here in Canada and the United States we’re approaching, in just a few days, the 103rd anniversary of the end of the Great War, Italy has just finished celebrating its own.

Signed at “Villa Giusti”, in the vicinity of Padua, on November 3rd 1918, the Armistice with Austria-Hungary was to take effect the following day, November 4th. It was to bring a long and brutal war to an end; a war Italy had entered on May 24th 1915, a whole nine months after all the other major powers from the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente. A war that costed Italy 651.000 killed in action and roughly another million between wounded and missing in action, widespread destruction, an economy in shambles, eventually plunging the country into chaos, despite having been victorious against the Austro-Hungarians.

This had truly been a monumental effort to complete the Country’s unification process, mainly with the long-awaited annexation of the region of Trentino-Alto-Adige and, further to the east, the area of Trieste.

Exactly a week later, “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day…” Germany also capitulated thus ending the conflict on the Western front as well…

Fast forward three years, 1921: poverty, unemployment, social unrest have been plaguing Italy and would eventually lead the Country into the Fascist dictatorship. In spite of it all, following the example of other Nations, politicians and military officials alike are anxious to honour the Nation’s participation to the Great War, by establishing a proper resting place for an “Unknown Soldier”, symbolically revering every soldier who had sacrificed their lives in the course of the conflict.

The original idea came from an Army Officer, Col Giulio Douhet, whose words, in August 1920, remarked how “the highest honors had to be reserved to a Soldier, representing the hundreds of thousands who had served and died, as a reward for all the suffering endured throughout the War”.

Douhet’s idea was largely met with favour and enthusiasm, however though he’d originally envisioned the Unknown Soldier to be buried at the Pantheon in Rome, “alongside Kings…”, a different proposal was brought forward, suggesting the Unknown Soldier to be buried instead at the “Vittoriano”, the relatively recent, and imposing, monument built downtown Rome to celebrate Victor Emmanuel II, first King of Italy.

A special Commission was formed and tasked with recovering the bodies of eleven soldiers, killed in action and unidentified, from the hundreds of impromptu cemeteries, strewn along the Italian front lines.

Their bodies would eventually be brought to the Aquileia Cathedral, not far from Trieste, where the mother of an Italian soldier, killed in 1916 and whose remains had never been found, would choose one to be transferred to Rome for proper burial in Rome at the Vittoriano.

The whole project took a little over two months; in order to give it the utmost significance, it was decided that the formal burial would take place on November 4th, 2021.

A special train was set up, and the Unknown soldier was to take his last voyage through Italy with destination Rome. The train left Aquileia on Oct. 30th and proceeded 800 kilometers down the peninsula through Udine, Venice, Bologna, Florence to finally reach Rome on the 3th of November. Thousands of Italians, throughout this voyage, would spontaneously pay homage to the Unknown, who would be buried the following day.

In order to remember the events of one hundred years ago, and to remark the importance and the significance of the Unknown Soldier, Italy organized a similar ceremony, preparing once again a special train that left Aquileia on Oct 30th and travelled through Italy with destination Rome, where it would arrive in coordination with the celebrations of the 103rd Anniversary of the end of the War on the Italian Front on November 4th.

Should you find yourself in Rome, perhaps you too will want to pay homage to the Unknown Soldier, as you’re climbing the steps of the Vittoriano, since then known as the “Altare della Patria”.

Here below I selected a number of pictures form the original event in 1921, along with some pictures from this year’s events:

Rome, night view of the “Vittoriano”, with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the base of the structure

Rome, night view of the “Vittoriano”, with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the base of the structure.

The Unknown Soldier’s coffin on the special train to Rome.

The Unknown Soldier’s coffin on the special train to Rome.

Rome, Cavalry Troopers on sentry duty at the Tomb of the Unknown.

Rome, Cavalry Troopers on sentry duty at the Tomb of the Unknown.

Udine, Italy, Oct-Nov 2021: a section of the special train set up to remember the 100th Anniversary of the Unknown Soldier.

Udine, Italy, Oct-Nov 2021: a section of the special train set up to remember the 100th Anniversary of the Unknown Soldier.

Aquileia, Italy October 1921: this lady’s name was Maria Bergamas. Her son, Antonio, was an Infantry Officer, killed in action in 1916 during the war with Austria-Hungary, his body was never found. In 1921 she was chosen to select one of eleven coffins of as many Italian unknown soldiers, gathered from a number of war-cemeteries along the Italian front, who would them be buried in Rome the following 4th of November.

Florence, Italy, 31 October 2021: the Unknown Soldier’s train at Santa Maria Novella.

Florence, Italy, 31 October 2021: the Unknown Soldier’s train at Santa Maria Novella.

Rome, November 4th 1921. Panoramic view of the “Vittoriano”, taken from Piazza Venezia, showing the imposing military line up, in honor of the Unknown Soldier.

Italian Army Colonel Giulio Douhet, the man behind the idea of the Unknown Soldier, in an official portrait in the early 1920s.

Italian Army Colonel Giulio Douhet, the man behind the idea of the Unknown Soldier, in an official portrait in the early 1920s. Col. Douhet is famous for being one of the very first proponents of the Air Power doctrine.

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About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, to European native parents, and raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, and how I look at the world and travel continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish and English of course). I have spent a lifetime in several countries in Western Europe, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working. I grew up with the local customs and traditions of these countries.