The White War. Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919

By Mark Thompson.

At the start of World War I, Italy was still a comparatively new country. It was allied to Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but when the war began, it took a neutral stance until 1915 when it launched an attack on Habsburg lands to the northeast, motivated by territorial expansion. The result was the wasteful deaths of hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers, who often had no idea what the war was about, on the altar of Italian nationalism and military incompetence.

On the other side, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its multiethnic army clung on by the skin of its teeth because it had the advantage of occupying the high ground and that ground was often better prepared. Against the odds, especially the geographical and climatic ones, Italian attacks may have reached and taken frontline trenches, but they were regularly rebuffed by counterattacks. On each occasion, nothing seemed to be learnt.

The lot of Italian soldiers was not helped by General Cadorna, the commander-in-chief, who threw away the lives of his men with complete indifference and who instigated decimations to punish rebellious units. Similarly, the Italian government caused the deaths of a further 100,000 men by refusing to send food parcels to Italian PoWs. When the PoWs returned to Italy, they were treated more like traitors.

There does, though, seem to have been a lot of casual betrayal. Defectors and prisoners from both sides seem to have felt little compunction about passing on intelligence about imminent attacks.

The narrative of the war is intercut with chapters about the motivations of the soldiers, and the motivators behind the conflict such as the egotistical poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio. Most of these people could simply be placed under the blanket heading of (extreme) nationalists. There is also a look at war reporting. Journalists had to toe the party line, but were privately appalled by what they saw, and military reports were typically full of empty, asinine bombast.

There were some successes, but they were often costly, and when the Habsburg army pushed back, the entire front collapsed to the point that Venice was potentially in danger. The only thing which saved the Italians further loss of territory was an Austro-Hungarian campaign too far. The Empire struggled to cope with all of the demands on it, and units at the front were usually under strength.

Even after the Armistice, the Italian government showed a knack for being extremely annoying because of its excessive demands for territory to which it had no real claim. As a result, Trieste became an international enclave for a time because these issues could not be satisfactorily resolved, and the matter was not really effectively dealt with until after World War II.

There is an appearance by Erwin Rommel, who won Germany’s highest award, Pour le Mérite, for capturing Matajur and just over 9,000 PoWs with a small band of men.

While the book is not uninteresting, the chapters on the philosophical motivations behind the war and its participants tend to bog it down. The toxic effects of Italian nationalism are established early on, and that should have been enough. Some chapters can be excused for focusing on certain soldiers, but Thompson often waffles unnecessarily.

The book also shows that there was already a very strong Fascist tendency in the newly unified Italy, which makes Mussolini’s rise to power in the 1920s unsurprising. The nationalist demagogues were disastrously effective with more exciting arguments than their opponents could bring to bear.

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