This Day In History: February 22

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On February 22, 1917, Sergeant Benito Mussolini is wounded by the accidental explosion of a mortar bomb on the Isonzo section of the Italian Front in World War I.

Born in Predappio, Italy, in 1883, the son of a blacksmith and a teacher, Mussolini was well-read, largely self-educated and had worked as a schoolteacher and a socialist journalist. He was arrested and jailed for leading demonstrations in the Forli province against the Italian war in Libya in 1911-12. The editor of Avanti!, the Socialist Party newsletter in Milan, Mussolini was one of the most effective socialist journalists in Europe.

In 1912, at the age of 29, he took the reins of the Italian Socialist Party at the Congress of Reggio Emilia, preaching a strict Marxist socialism that prompted Vladimir Lenin to write in a Russian publication that "The party of the Italian socialist proletariat has taken the right path."

Mussolini early on denounced the Great War, which broke out in 1914, as an imperialist conflict; he later reversed his position and began to advocate Italian entrance into the war on the side of the Allies. He left the Socialist Party in 1915 over its neutrality, believing that Italian participation in the Great War would boost its claims on recovered territory in Austria-Hungary after the war. Enlisting in the army, Mussolini was sent to the front at Isonzo, on the eastern end of the Italian Front near the Isonzo River, after Italy’s long-awaited entrance into the war in May 1915.

The mortar bomb that exploded during a training exercise on February 22, 1917, killed four of Mussolini’s fellow soldiers. He escaped alive, but spent six months in the hospital, where 44 fragments of shell were removed from his body. Discharged from the army after his release from the hospital, Mussolini headed back to Milan, where he started his own newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia (The People of Italy), in which he published articles attacking those in Italy who voiced anti-war sentiments.

In the immediate post-war period, Mussolini and a group of fellow young war veterans founded the Fasci di Combattimento, a right-wing, strongly nationalistic, anti-Socialist movement named for the fasces, the ancient Roman symbol for discipline. Fascism grew rapidly in the 1920s, winning support from rich landowners, the army and the monarchy; the growing strength of Mussolini and his now notorious black-shirt militia led King Vittorio Emmanuel III to invite the charismatic leader to form a coalition government in 1922. 

By 1926, Benito Mussolini, now known as Il Duce, had consolidated power for himself, transforming Italy into a single-party, totalitarian state that would later, alongside Japan and Adolf Hitler’s Germany, return to the battlefield against the Allies in the Second World War.