Thursday, 18 May 2017

Those who went from Ancoats to serve in the Italian army in the Great War

Manchester Guardian, 1919
“Italians seem to be re-establishing themselves in Ancoats as fast as the military authorities will allow.”*

Now I have long been fascinated by Little Italy and the contribution made to the life of the city by the Italians who settled there in the late 19th century.**

And as you do just naively assumed that when the Great War broke out in 1914 some at least would enlist.

Now at present I have no way of knowing who and how many did but the real story comes in to its own eight months later when Italy joined the war on the side of the Allies.

Even then I just assumed they would join up locally, but being Italian nationals they chose to return to Italy.

To Our Italian Comrades, 1915-1918, Manchester, 2014
The Manchester Courier reported in August 1915 that 70 young men had already left and went on to reveal that many older men were also planning to leave.

As always behind such decisions are a wealth of stories like those men who made the long journey only to be found medically unfit.

Or the  “young Italian medical man resident in Manchester [who had] the misfortune to be born in Berlin was at the outbreak of the war placed in a concentration camp by the English authorities [and] while anxious to join his colours to fight the Germans had to fraternize with the enemy prisoners [until] he could return to Italy only to find his eyesight debarred his entering the army and so was on his way back to England.”***

And behind that decision to leave for home came the equally difficult choice of uprooting the whole family and taking them back as well. As the Manchester Guardian observed “many of the poorer men will be careful to take their families with them, so that the Italian Government my provide for their maintenance if the need should arrive.”****

But once the war was over “men have been coming back-in some cases whole families have come back-to Ancoats, mainly, it may be under the pressure of economic considerations, but not-without a certain pleasure  in the return.” 

The reporter might have also added that for some at least the decision to serve in the Italian army had been at considerable economic sacrifice.

One such case highlighted by the Manchester Courier in 1915, involved a successful Italian ice cream vendor who sold his business and furniture leaving his wife to find work in a local firm to support their children.

Outside Nazaren Bela's Ice Cream shop, Jersey Street, 1922
Of course many of the stories that appeared in the papers during 1915 were in part designed to bolster the mood for war which had gone off the boil in the eight months since the start of the conflict.

And much had been made of the spontaneous demonstrations by “a considerable number of Italian subjects living in Manchester and Salford for the war” including a “procession through the main streets of the city to the Town Hall” just days after Italy joined the war.

It was estimated that 300 men might eventually leave for Italy and given that there were about 1000 Italians in the twin cities with upwards of 500 in Ancoats this was a major contribution to the war.

All of which puts into context that newspaper story of the return of so many to Ancoats.

Pictures; The Manchester Guardian, September 6 1919, Memorial “To our Italian comrades, from the collection of Sally Dervan, 2014, and outside Nazaren Bella’s Ice Cream Shop on Jersey Street, 1922, courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council,

*Italy in Ancoats, the Colony coming back after the war, Manchester Guardian, September 6 1919

**Little Italy,

***Manchester Courier, August 1915

****The Italian Colony, Excitement in Ancoats, Manchester Guardian, May 26 1915

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