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The White War: Life and Death on the Italian…

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 (2008)

by Mark Thompson

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An excellent account of a forgotten front. Italy entered the war in hope of gaining territory, and the secret Treaty of London agreed with the French and the British, who had no great respect for Italy or the Italian military but hoped they could tie up sufficient Austro Hungarian troops to make life easier on the Western front, promised an unlikely grab bag of territories including Greek islands and the coast of Turkey. The best that can be said is, yes, they did tie up enough Austro Hungarian troops to make a significant contribution to the eventual collapse of the empire - but at what frightful cost.

All of the conflict took place either on the unforgiving Carso above Trieste, or in the Dolomites. I've been to some of the Dolomite war sites, and the task Italian troops were set by their commanders looks inhuman. The Austro Hungarians basically held all the high ground. The Italian troops were invited to charge uphill, across vast no man's land, in snow mist and fog, through barbed wire they had no means of cutting, whilst being machine gunned. It was a slaughter. And one that happened again and again and again.

Unlike the Western Front, where commanders did eventually realise that mass attacks in formation across no mans land were senseless, the Italian command had no such moment of illumination. Thompson identifies 6 specific occasions where the slaughter was so bad, and so pointless, that the Austrians ordered their soldiers to stop shooting and shouted to the Italians to go back to their trenches and stop throwing their lives away. This is unparalleled in the history of warfare.

The Italian army lost nearly 700,000 men killed in the war for a gain of almost nothing. The pride, incompetence and heartlessness on many fronts that led to this is exposed by Thompson but the majority of his barbs are reserved for the Commander of the Italian Armies, Luigi Cardona. Leaders of the massed armies on the Western front were careless with their men's lives as well, but very few would have made the suicidal loss of thousands of men per day such a point of pride. Combining a fatal measure of arrogance and imbecility, a great number of the lives of the dead were his responsibility. Especially when you consider that the brutal, Roman custom of decimation (killing one in every 10 of deserting or disgraced groups of soldiers) was in place, and that as well as being shot at from the front and sides by the Austrians, the Italian soldier was shot at from behind by the carabinieri and frequently bombed by his own artillery.

But Thompson also has huge contempt for the odious Gabrielle D'Annunzio (the description of his occupation of Fiume his very amusingly told) and for the Italian political class in general.

Its a sad story, beautifully told. Wherever possible Thompson brings individual soldiers, and their stories, into the limelight. Almost inevitably they were mistaken idealists. Almost inevitably , they died on the Carso. Of the illiterate multitudes who made up the majority of the army, we get a very different picture. Mostly, they had no idea what they were fighting for. Mostly they were from the South and the displaced Italian communities of Istria that were the casus belli for the war, meant nothing to them. Mostly they wanted to go home but died in silence in pointless mass slaughter

Did this lead to the mistrust in institutions that exists in Italy even today? That's hard to say. But it would have been very difficult for the average soldier not to draw the conclusion that their government cared only for its own interests and not for theirs. And as such, perhaps the state of Italy today is another long consequence of the war ( )
  Opinionated | Jun 22, 2014 |
A much-needed history of the forgotten Italian front during the First World War, its brutal and bloody battles that rival the Somme and Ypres for senseless waste of lives, and its aftermath. Thompson writes well and covers the Italian-Austro-Hungarian conflict in detail, both on the field of battle and politically. He also includes translations of war poetry written by soldiers - brining a human touch to an inhuman conflict. ( )
  xuebi | May 30, 2014 |
I read this after seeing a documentary about avalanches and one of the 10 things you didn't know about avalanches is that in WW1 on the Italian front they were triggered deliberately by troops to attack the other side. I can't verify that to be true, it not being mentioned in this book. It did say that many men were killed by avalanche, but not that they were triggered. Regardless, it was a very interesting read. I knew Italy were on the Allied side in WW1 but my fund of knowledge stopped about there. they were somewhat an exception to the rule, entering the war with territorial gains in mind (Trento & Trestse) rather than being drawn in by a web of treaties and protecting Belgium's neutrality. I don;t deny that they were a help to the Allies, in that they tied up Habsburg empire troops that might otherwise have been deployed on the Western front. but what a disaster! Talk about how to generate and live up to a stereotype. The conduct, as presented here, would have been funny, but it resulted in unnecessary deaths and so becomes ridiculous.
I liked the way the author would cite examples of individual actions, following particular people through certain phases - especially when they were also people about whom more was known, so you can project forward (Rommel, for example was involved in the big push into Italian territory). I liked the comparison of Italian war literature and that produced by the Allies during and after the war - it appears to have a very different feel and tone. The maps were interesting and clear and a great help. The only negative comment would be that there was a certain amount of assumed knowledge. In most cases this became clear later in the book, but it did make some passages a little opaque. ( )
  Helenliz | Jan 10, 2014 |
The stupidity of war in all its grueling details. Very good. ( )
  deblemrc | Nov 1, 2013 |
Quote from a review by Donna Leon: The eventual Allied victory put an end to the killing, but history has gone on in its usual, amnesiac way. The bestially incompetent General Cadorna is remembered by many Italians as a hero, and much of the patriarchal posturing of Fascism got its start by glorying in the bloodshed of the war. Few Italians are ever taught how many died, or why. But folk wisdom remembers what happens during hopeless wars, and many Italians today believe the rumors that their soldiers in Afghanistan have been supplying weapons to the Taliban while also paying them not to attack.

After living here for almost half of my life, I find it impossible not to sympathize with their sentiments."
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
Mark Thompson has produced a history of the conduct of the First World War on the Italian front which is comprehensive, judicious and often beautifully written. It is a view primarily from an Italian rather than an Austrian point of view though as is perhaps obvious it is not particularly sympathetic to Italian war aims. It is even conceivable that some will find it anti-Italian...
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Book description
In May 1915, Italy declared war on the Hapsburg Empire, hoping to seize its 'lost' territories of Trieste and Tyrol. The result was one of the most hopeless and senseless modern wars - and one that inspired great cruelty and destruction. Nearly three quarters of a million Italians - and half as many Austro-Hungarian troops - were killed. Most of the deaths occurred on the bare grey hills north of Trieste, and in the snows of the Dolomite Alps. Outsiders who witnessed these battles were awestruck by the difficulty of attacking on such terrain. General Luigi Cadorna, most ruthless of all the Great War commanders, restored the Roman practice of 'decimation', executing random members of units that retreated or rebelled. Italy sank into chaos and, eventually, fascism. Its liberal traditions did not recover for a quarter of a century - some would say they have never recovered.

Mark Thompson relates this nearly incredible saga with great skill and pathos. Much more than a history of terrible violence, this book tells the whole story of the war: the nationalistic frenzy that led up to it, the decisions that shaped it, the poetry it inspired, its haunting landscapes, political intrigues and its dire consequences. Thompson also evokes the personalities of its statesmen and generals, and the experience of its ordinary soldiers - among them some of modern italy's greatest writers.

A work of epic scale, The White War does full justice to one of the most remarkable untold stories of the First World War.
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This is the story of the First World War in Italy, a war that gave birth to fascism. Mussolini fought in these trenches, as did most of his collaborators. But so did many of the greatest modernist writers in Italian and German - Ungaretti, Gadda, Musil.… (more)

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