By Charlie Sacchetti
Richard N. Juliani’s “Little Italy in the Great War: Philadelphia’s Italians on the Battlefield and Home Front,” is an exhaustive account of how the city’s Italian immigrants were affected by World War I and how they perceived their immigrant status while maintaining strong ties to their native country. Being accepted in a new country was tough enough and the allegiance they had to Italy only made coping more difficult. This was further complicated by the fact that many immigrants were expected to fight for Italy, because of their Italian reserve military status. Indeed, a full three years before the U.S. entered the war, many Italian men left their new country and returned to fight against Austria-Hungry. However, the majority of young men decided to remain here and as a result were drafted by the U.S. Army to serve their new nation in battle. This made for additional strain on the family unit as they tried to assimilate in their new land.
The book explains how Italian emigration to Philadelphia was at first a trickle. In 1850, only 100 or so Italians were counted in the census. The 1860 census indicated that the numbers had increased to only about 500. In comparison, California could boast of nearly 3,000 Italian residents, many of them enticed by the fantasy of discovering gold. However, by 1900, the number of Italian immigrants in Philadelphia had swelled to almost 18,000. In 10 more years the population would expand to nearly 45,000. Many made their livings in factories, or as cobblers, tailors or laborers on the railroad. By the time World War I was ramping up, there were plenty of Philadelphia Italians to tap for service to the U.S.A. The author does a fine job walking the reader through all phases of Italian growth while giving clear background of how it was not exactly a “love affair” between city officials and Italian immigrants who faced the typical bouts of prejudice and financial hardship one might expect.
This well-researched, well-documented work will give the reader insight into the social climate of the time. The tug-of-war between the Italian’s loyalty to homeland and the desire to make a new life for themselves and their families is a constant theme. These competing forces gave birth to some very compelling demonstrations of loyalty on both sides. As you read about the continuing saga of the troop ship, Ancona, you will steam “full speed ahead” into that time period’s feeling of nationalism toward the old county. And of course, right along with those feelings are those of heartbreak as women and children shed their tears as they watch their men depart for war. The departing soldiers-to-be only illustrate that the ties that bind do not break easily. Yet, most chose to remain here and live out their lives as God orchestrated.
I recommend “Little Italy in the Great War: Philadelphia’s Italians on the Battlefield and Home Front” to anyone who has an interest in how it was for immigrants, and especially Italian-Americans, to adjust to life in their new country in times of political and social upheaval. As if things weren’t tough enough finding a safe place at home, these people had to also deal with the uncertainty of war. The duel nature of their loyalty to homeland and new land, only made it more trying. The added references to neighborhoods and surnames familiar to us, only make it more interesting. Richard N. Juliani has made his hard work pay off in this enlightening and well-researched book. IAH