Paul Anderson, review of The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson (Faber and Faber, £25), Tribune, 3 October 2008
The Italian front in the first world war has not been a favoured topic for historians writing in English. It would be wrong to say that it has been completely ignored – but by comparison with the western front, the war at sea, Gallipoli, the eastern front or even Palestine it has received scant attention, apart from two key battles: the central powers’ rout of Italy at Caporetto in autumn 1917, which was followed by a spectacular Italian retreat; and the Italians’ decisive triumph of Vittorio Veneto a year later, after which the Italians recovered all their lost territory (and seized some more) in the last days before the war ended.
In some respects, this lack of attention is hardly surprising. Italy joined the allies late – in spring 1915 – and the front lines established by the Italians and the Austro-Hungarian empire within days of the start of hostilities changed only marginally over the next two-and-a-half years. For the western allies (Britain and France), Italy was a sideshow compared with the western front and the German blockade, and they committed few troops and little hardware until almost the very end; for the Russians, the Italian campaign was of interest solely because it tied up large numbers of Austro-Hungarian troops that would otherwise have been sent to fight them. Germany was directly involved in the Italian campaign only briefly (although its intervention was almost decisive).
Yet, as Mark Thompson makes clear in this fascinating book, the Italian front was rather more important than it seemed at the time to outsiders or has since appeared to most non-Italian historians. It is a commonplace that the experience of war is socially and politically cathartic, and many historians have remarked on the importance of the first world war in the breakdown of Italy’s fragile, flawed democracy and the rise of Mussolini’s fascists: 1.2 million Italians died, nearly half of them civilians. But Thompson makes that process extraordinarily vivid, using an impressive range of sources – official reports, newspaper articles, veterans’ memoirs, intellectual manifestos – to put into context and humanise the story of military actions and casualty statistics.
The picture he paints is little short of horrifying. Italy was bounced into war by a cynical nationalist propaganda campaign in which most liberals and socialists acquiesced. Then the Italian commander-in-chief, Luigi Cadorna, adopted tactics of breathtaking stupidity – frontal assaults up bare mountainsides against well-defended Austro-Hungarian positions – that he stuck with, despite shocking casualties, for more than two years. The troops were treated as dirt, even when they were not being sent to their deaths in futile attacks on mountain redoubts: their rations and clothing were inadequate and their leave minimal, and summary execution of supposed malingerers and cowards was the norm. (This extended to the systematic execution of soldiers chosen by lot to discourage their comrades from mutiny or desertion.)
Cadorna regarded the democratic politicians that were supposedly in charge with utter contempt – and was cheered on loudly by Mussolini (miraculously transformed from socialist militant into ultra-patriotic publicist) and other extreme nationalist intellectuals, among them the poets Gabriele d’Annunzio and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Cadorna was sacked after the debacle of Caporetto, but by then Italy’s liberal political class had lost the plot. After the war ended, it found itself outmanoeuvred by insistent and hysterical right-wing nationalist demands for Italy to be rewarded for its sacrifices with Trieste, Fiume and a large swath of the northern Adriatic coast – and, to cut a long story short, it capitulated.
The White War – the title refers to the snow and limestone of the mountains over which most of the Italian campaign of 1915-18 was fought – is meticulously researched and a gripping read. I could have done with a big fold-out map, but otherwise this is an exemplary and erudite work of popular history.