By John Norris
On May 23 1915, Italy declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In doing so, it became the latest country to become involved the pan-European war that was expanding to become a world-wide war. There was a long history of hostility between the two countries which had last fought a war in 1859, This time, however, Italy’s declaration meant it was also opposed to the other Central Powers to which Austria was allied. This included Bulgaria, Turkey, and Germany. Italy would also declare war on these countries in turn.
Italy’s decision to declare war only came after protracted negotiations involving Britain and France whose governments promised territorial gains after the war. In 1914, Italy had actually been undecided as to which side it should ally itself, but it was the promises made by the Allies that finally swayed the country into an alliance against Austria. Between May 1915, and the end of the war in 1918, Italy mobilized 5,615,000 troops. Of these, more than 462,000 were killed and 953,886 were wounded.
Italy rewarded its troops by instituting a number of medals in recognition for service, such as the War Medal of 1915-1918. Another medal was the Croce al Merito di Guerra (Cross for War Merit) which was instituted by Royal Decree 205 on January 19, 1918, by King Victor Emanuel III. Between that time and May 1927, records show that the medal was awarded to 1,034,924 individual veterans. Such a relatively high figure means it is a common medal for collectors, neither particularly difficult to find nor expensive to obtain. What does make it different and, therefore, worth collecting, however, is the history behind it.
Italy has produced several types of “War Crosses” over the years, such as the Croce Al Valore Militare (Cross for Military Valor). Indeed, it is this one from the First World War which is of interest to collectors for a number of reasons. The Cross for War Merit was originally awarded for servicemen, regardless of rank, who had completed one year of service in the front line but whose conduct, although meritorious over a period, during that time had not performed any act of exceptional gallantry to warrant the award of the Medal for Military Valor. In other words, it was to be a “service medal.”
Later, it was decided that it should be extended to include those individuals who had performed an act of valor, but again, whose actions were not sufficient to qualify for the Medal of Military Valor. In 1922, it was decided that a bronze, gladius-style sword sheathed in oak leaves (some sources state the garland is laurel) should be granted to be worn on the medal ribbon in order to identify that the wearer had performed such an act. It was also decided that the presentation of the Cross be extended to include those servicemen who had been wounded in action. Bars to denote subsequent awards for further service were made in the shape of small bronze stars and these were worn on the medal ribbon.
The Cross for War Merit is a square-armed design, sometimes referred to as a “Greek Cross,” measuring 38mm wide and the same in height. Made in bronze, it is suspended from a ribbon the colors of which are made up of five alternating vertical stripes of blue and white. The central stripe is blue, as are those forming the edges.
The Cross is one of those rare medals about which there is debate as to which side is the obverse and reverse. Among collectors, the obverse is generally recognized as being the side displaying the five-pointed star in the centre with rays radiating out to all four arms of the cross. However, there are some sources which hold a different opinion and claim this is actually the reverse, but as this side of the design never changed there is a strong case for this to be held as the correct obverse. The edges have a slightly raised pattern which gives it the appearances of being framed, otherwise it has no other distinguishing features.
Each arm of the Cross is 26mm in width with the top of the vertical or upright being fitted with a claw and pommel through which passes the suspension ring for the medal ribbon, which is 38mm in width. The reverse of the Cross bears the legend “MERITO DI GVERRA” (Merit of War) which appears in capital letters across the horizontal arms. The lower portion of the vertical arm shows a Gladius-style sword, as used by the Roman army, with the blade uppermost and entwined with a garland. The upper portion of the vertical arm has the capital letters “VE” interwoven below which is the Roman numeral III to stand for Victor Emanuel III, the King of Italy. The letters are surmounted by the royal crown. As with the obverse, the edges of the reverse have a slightly raised border to give it the appearance of a frame.
AWARDED TO ALLIES, TOO
The Italian Army conferred the Cross for War Merit on a number of Allied personnel including American servicemen, such as Sergeant Alvin York and Douglas MacArthur, whose actions singled them out for the presentation. Other American servicemen to receive the medal included Evans Carlson of “Carlson’s Raiders” fame, Major General William “Wild Bill” J. Donovan and Private Robert L. Blackwell who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his action in carrying a vital message under heavy fire on October 11, 1918.
Among the prominent Italian servicemen to receive the Cross was Marshal Pietro Badoglio. Even Benito Mussolini, the future Fascist leader of Italy, received the medal. He joined the army in 1915 and served in the frontline until 1917 when he was wounded by a mortar bomb exploding on his position. His injuries led to him being invalided out of military service. His service and his wounding qualified Mussolini for the award of Cross of Merit.
A CHANGE IN DESIGN
Mussolini could not have known it at the time of his award, but he would have a direct influence in the history of the medal, including the way it was awarded and changes in its design. Italy became a Republic State in 1922 and King Victor Emanuel II appointed Mussolini Prime Minister. Over the next several years he introduced changes which led to the country becoming a Fascist State. The Cross for War Merit continued to be awarded but in 1943 its design was changed in keeping with the new Dictatorship of Mussolini.
The new style of the Croce al Merito di Guerra retained the same design for the obverse. None of the designs of the Cross were named to a recipient and so, unless accompanied by documentation, there is no way of discovering to whom an example was awarded. The wording of the legend on the reverse remained the same and the Gladius sword in the lower portion of the vertical arm also remained. The motif in the upper portion of the vertical arm was changed to show the capital letters “RI” intertwined to represent Republica Italia (Republic of Italy). The frame edging also remained a feature on both sides of the Cross. This was the version issued to Italian troops who served in the campaigns in Ethiopia and Somalia. If veterans of the First World War lost their original Cross and applied for a replacement, this was the version they received.
During Mussolini’s dictatorship, other crosses were awarded which were in the same pattern as the Cross for War Merit, including the Guerra Por La Unidad Nacional Espanola presented to troops who had fought in Spain between 1936 and 1939, in support of Franco’s Republican forces. This had a sheaf of five arrows on the obverse and the date “17-VII. 1936” over a Roman-style gladius sword, with stars and sprays of oak and laurel either side. This design suspended from a ribbon of red, blue and yellow stripes, but this is an altogether different medal.
In 1941, the wording was changed to CROCE AL VALORE MILITARE otherwise the design remained the same and the blue and white ribbon was unaltered. The following year, the word “CROCE” was omitted from the term and the color of the ribbon changed to an all-blue design.
The Italian monarchy was deposed in 1943 and Mussolini’s leadership was also ended in the same year, replaced by Marshal Badoglio. The country remained a Republic. Therefore, veterans could find themselves wearing either a Royal or Republican version, both of which were officially recognized.
For collectors, it is interesting to make a complete set to show the changes made in the design. An example of either style of the Croce al Merito di Guerra can be obtained for around $30-$40. However, an example in good condition with official documentation will cost in the region of around $85-$100.