Why did Italy join the Allies in 1915?

On 23 May 1915, Italy declared war on its former ally, Austria-Hungary. The Triple Alliance was reduced to an alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary and Europe no longer seemed quite as finely balanced into two opposing camps as it had at the outbreak of war. But why did Italy abandon the Central Powers? 

Italy had always been the shakiest member of the European alliance system. By 1914, the Triple Entente of Russia, France and the United Kingdom had developed into a working alliance. They faced the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Germany and Austria-Hungary’s military alliance was solid. Its strength was forged from a messy combination of compromise, necessity, exigency and shared geographic and political goals.

Cartoon showing the disparity between the Triple Alliance members - Italy strains to reach the heights of Germany and Austria-Hungary

These factors did not apply as clearly to Italy. In fact, there were real tensions between Italy and Austria-Hungary – a shared border, competing irredentist claims over Alpine and Adriatic territory and the prospect of territorial gains in the Balkans as a crumbling Ottoman Empire rolled back to its Anatolian heartlands.

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Royal Bastards

What connect David Cameron, the 12th Duke of Grafton and Diana, Princess of Wales? They are all descendants of royal bastards, the illegitimate children of kings from across the centuries. Their illegitimacy barred them from succession to the Crown, but family ties ensured they would be granted titles, lands, wealth and power. And some started dynasties that thrive to this day.

Over nearly a thousand years of royal history since the Norman Conquest, the monarchy has augmented its power, wealth and influence by marrying well and producing children. The legitimate children of kings and queens are only part of the story; a surprisingly important role is played by the progeny of the illegitimate offspring of England’s monarchs.

Well into the twenty-first century, descendants of royal bastards occupy some of the top branches of the aristocracy, the Establishment and even Number 10.

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Deporting Dixie to Brazil

After the defeat of the Confederacy, thousands of Americans decided to emigrate to Brazil. They dreamed of building a new slave-owning society in a country almost as large as continental America with plenty of undeveloped land. Ironically, their presence would highlight slavery as an issue and lead to its eventual abolition in Brazil.

The Economist’s 2013 Christmas Special tells the story of the murder of Joaquim Firmino de Araújo Cunha. The story goes on to show how America and Brazil were “once bound together by slavery, and how the end of the peculiar institution in one country helped, in a roundabout way, end it in another.”

Ruins of Richmond, VA., 1865

For those in favour of slavery, or at least to the way of life that the ‘peculiar institution’ permitted, the defeat of the southern Confederate States of America by unionist forces in 1865 was a calamity. Would they stay in their home states to watch their antebellum way of life destroyed? Or should they move on to find a new and more permissive home?

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Vengeance denied

Few spy thrillers have plots that are as implausible as the reality presented to French military intelligence in 1904. A German officer presented himself and offered to sell top secret war plans. He called himself “The Avenger” and met his handlers with his face entirely wrapped in bandages. The facts were so implausible that it was dismissed as a German ruse. If they had taken the documents seriously, could the French have averted the near-catastrophe on the Western Front?

By the time the continental Great Powers went to war in 1914 their armies had already created detailed battle plans. Germany’s Schlieffen Plan would be pitted against France’s Plan XVII. If successful, Germany would swing around to join its ally, Austria-Hungary and its Plans B and R to fight against Russia and its Plan 19.

Le Vengeur (the Avenger) appeared to his French intelligence handler disguised in bandages

A German officer working in the General Staff wrote to his French counterparts in 1904 and offered “documents of the highest importance”.  He was to remain anonymous, signing himself only as Le Vengeur – the Avenger. The only clue at this stage was a postmark showing that the letter had been sent from Liège in Belgium.

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Iron Barons

The creation of the UK railway network in the nineteenth century saw the equivalent of billions, if not trillions, of pounds invested in infrastructure. In five years alone, 5,000 miles of track were laid as the nation succumbed to railway mania. As with any such boom there were winners who would walk away with immense fortunes and, in some cases, bring about big changes to society.

Robert Stephenson was one of the pioneers of the railway. Along with his father, George Stephenson, he was the engineer responsible for designing the Rocket, the locomotive that famously won the trials to decide the best engine for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

Robert Stephenson

Already instrumental in Britain’s first timetabled passenger railway, he would become a powerful force behind its most important line – the London and Birmingham Railway. His salary as chief engineer would eventually reach £2,000 – an economic status equivalent to several million pounds – placing him firmly in the league of today’s best-remunerated bankers and executives.

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Opening the Peace Palace on the eve of war

In the heart of the Dutch capital stands a gothic wonder set in immaculate grounds. It has the lofty bell tower and intricate brickwork that conjures images of the handsome guild houses and town halls of the prosperous trading centres of the low countries. But this is not an ancient building; it is the home of the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

It is commonly known as the Peace Palace and was intended to place a key role in ending armed conflict. With terrible irony, it opened on 28 August 1913; less than a year later Europe had slid into the calamity and horror of the First World War.


Utopia was the vision of Sir Thomas More, a perfect island society that was both a ‘good place’ and ‘no place’. It was a ‘good place’ in being perfect, but it was ‘no place’ on earth as the dream was both unreachable and impossible. More succinctly discerned that mankind is fallible and so an ideal society or world is an impossible dream.

The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands By Peegmehh (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately a negligible or nonexistent possibility of success rarely stops dreamers from dreaming. Since Thomas More’s early 16th century work, philosophers, scholars and leaders have pondered how to forge a better or even perfect society.

Few attempts at societal change were as ambitious as the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ peace movements. Throughout the nineteenth century, great powers had sought to solidify and enhance their positions by developing armies and navies. Technological progress produced weaponry with the unrivalled capacity to destroy.

Total warfare combined with technological advances were put on brutal display during the American Civil War. Mass circulation newspapers combined with telegraphy and photography to bring first hand accounts of the slaughter first to American readers and then around the world. Europeans were given a firsthand demonstration of modern warfare in the brief but decisive Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

By the turn of the century, many realised that a European conflict fought with similar intensity to that waged across the Atlantic would be disastrous. A call to action came from a surprising quarter – the court of Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. In 1898 he invited fellow rulers and nations to join in a conference to discuss peace and disarmament:

“On 24 August 1898, he invited the governments of all major nations to join an international conference on peace and disarmament. According to the Tsar, he thought it would be better for the prosperity and progress of mankind if governments sat down and talked and concluded agreements instead of being divided and hostile towards one another.

Statue in the Peace Palace with stained glass donated by France and England PetrusSilesius at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The result was the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, hosted by Queen Wilhelmina in the Netherlands. The Hague was developing a reputation as a centre for international law and the Netherlands was suitably unthreatening and neutral to be satisfactory to all the great powers.

The delegates set to work on a dizzying raft of proposals, pledges and principles. Attendees debated the merits of setting limits on military expenditure, discussed whether to ban new weapons such as submarine torpedoes and using dirigibles to lob bombs at targets far below on the ground. One of the most powerful and lasting principles was to advocate the use of mediation and arbitration in order to prevent or end future international disputes.

The result was the 1899 Hague Convention and the foundation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The foundation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration marked a new chapter in the development of international law. It is the oldest institution for international dispute resolution and was the great hope of those who wished the new century would bring a new age of peace.

It was clear that the Permanent Court needed a permanent home. Many thought that the Court deserved and needed a grand building, an iconic statement that would enhance its prestige throughout the world. Fundraising began almost immediately, and it became one of the favoured projects of one of the age’s most generous and important philanthropists.

Andrew Carnegie was swayed in part by entreaties from Andrew Dickson White, who suggested to Carnegie that:

“A temple of peace where the doors are open, in contrast to the Janus-temple, in times of peace and closed in cases of war (…..) as a worthy testimony of the people that, after many long centuries finally a court that has thrown open its doors for the peaceful settlement of differences between peoples”.

Portrait of Andrew Carnegie Theodore C. Marceau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Peace Palace emerged in the first years of the new century, a prominent brick building that is both a nod to Dutch civic architecture and reminiscent of an important train station. In British terms, it looks like the cross between St Pancras Railway Station and Manchester Town Hall. The New York Times was not impressed, criticising it for being wholly “imitative of the architecture of another age” and for failing to incorporate “the slightest effort at large symbolism of modern life”.

Whilst it may not have impressed some from its outside, its interiors are grander. It boasts a lavishly decorated interior with gifts from many nations – a 3.2 tonne vase from Russia, marble from Italy, a fountain from Denmark, wood from Indonesia and the USA, rugs from Iran/Persia, paintings from the Dutch, stained glass from the English and a copy of the white marble throne of King Minos of Crete from Greece.

One of the gifts from the nations to the Peace Palace - a vase donated by Russia - By Lybil BER (Oeuvre personnel) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It is, of course, a supreme irony that mankind’s palace to peace opened on the eve of one of the bloodiest conflicts. The official opening, on 29 August 1913, was attended by royalty, heads of state and huge optimism. It was its unhappy fate to enter the world at the start of a half century of European history unmatched in turbulence, death and destruction.

Why was Kyoto removed as the prime target for the A-Bomb?

Hiroshima and Nagasaki conjure images of lightning flashes and mushroom clouds; the terrifying power of atomic weapons and of once great cities reduced to smoking ash, twisted steel and molten corpses. Survival in the radioactive aftermath was, in many cases, a curse as Japan struggled to come to terms with the magnitude of the disaster. But Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the first choice targets. Instead, many planned for Kyoto to be incinerated. How did Kyoto escape obliteration?


On 6 August 1945, the United States Air Force unleashed the country’s latest and most powerful weapon on the unsuspecting city of Hiroshima. The world had now openly and terrifyingly entered the Atomic Age and the once thriving port was now a smouldering city of the dead and dying.

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki By The picture was taken by Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Three days later, the USAF repeated its feat with the annihilation of Nagasaki. America had comprehensively demonstrated the new and terrible power at its disposal; Japan unconditionally surrendered just six days after the destruction of Nagasaki.

The impact of the attacks was immediate and profound. Few human technological developments can match the product of the Manhattan Project for changing the rules of warfare so dramatically and so quickly. What use were tanks, armies of infantry or even air forces against such power? What defence did anyone now have against nuclear war? What guarantee was there for anyone in a world where man now had the power to destroy itself and the planet?

Those questions continue to vex world leaders discussing disarmament and a nuclear free world. How much more pressing would these discussions have been had the Americans succeeded in their original plan to bomb Kyoto instead of the secondary targets outlined above?

It is difficult to emphasise the importance of Kyoto in both Japanese national consciousness and world cultural importance. It had been the imperial capital of Japan for more than a millennia and plays a key role in maintaining traditional Japanese culture.

Kyot - Toji Pagoda - By Simone Urbinati (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It is home to more than 2,000 temples – both Buddhist and Shinto and is adorned with imperial palaces, pavilions and gardens. Its royal tombs house many of the emperors of ancient Japan and its streets feature a concentration of traditional Japanese architecture that is now unique. Tourists throng to stare at traditional tea ceremonies, geishas fluttering along narrow streets or simply to admire the cherry blossom trees in beautiful bloom.

Kyoto had been identified early in the Manhattan Project as a potential target. It remained at the top of the target list well in to 1945. At the minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee held at Los Alamos on 10 – 11 May 1945, Kyoto was listed at number one – ahead of Hiroshima, Yokohama, the Kokura Arsenal and Niigata. Nagasaki was not even listed at this stage.

The Target Committee heard that: ‘This target is an urban industrial area with a population of 1,000,000. It is the former capital of Japan and many people and industries are now being moved there as other areas are being destroyed. From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget.’ It, along with Hiroshima, was classified as an ‘AA Target’.

The Target Committee finally decided on a list of four targets, with Kyoto topping the list. Kyoto’s primacy was partially dependent on the impact an attack would have on the Japanese psyche: ‘Kyoto has the advantage of the people being more highly intelligent and hence better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon. Hiroshima has the advantage of being such a size and with possible focussing from nearby mountains that a large fraction of the city may be destroyed. The Emperor’s palace in Tokyo has a greater fame than any other target but is of least strategic value.’

Henry Stimson, 45th US Secretary of War By Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So how did Kyoto go from being the main target to being spared the horror of an atomic attack? Kyoto’s fortune (and Nagasaki’s misfortune) can be attributed to one man – Henry S. Stimson, the US Secretary of War.

On 12 June 1945, Stimson asked for a list of the cities that had been selected for bombing. He immediately opposed the selection of Kyoto as the primary candidate, noting that it: ‘had been the ancient capital of Japan and was a shrine of Japanese art and culture’. The War Secretary was not merely concerned with the cultural impact of a strike – he feared the reaction from the Japanese and world opinion.

Stimson went further in protecting Kyoto – he ordered that it should not even be subject to conventional air raids. In conversations with General Arnold, the commander of the Army Air Force, Stimson: ‘told him there was one city that they must not bomb without my permission and that was Kyoto’.

Stimson’s decision making was undoubtedly influenced by two key events. The first and most often commented on is that Stimson had spent a happy honeymoon in Kyoto. It is unlikely, however, that blissful memories were enough to protect the city. More practically, he had seen the negative reaction in Germany and across the world accompanying the destruction of Dresden after a particularly heavy Allied raid and the resulting firestorm.

Finally, Stimson was an intelligent man of the world. As well as being concerned for the cultural and religious significance of Kyoto, there was a solid realpolitik foundation to his decision: ‘he felt that bombing Kyoto would increase the likelihood that Japan would be driven into Russia’s arms after the war’. In the aftermath of the Potsdam Conference and President Truman’s cooler relations with the Soviets, the last thing the Americans wanted to do was bolster the communist cause in Asia.