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Nothing like good history, thoroughly researched and well written, helps better to put in place pieces of the immense human puzzle that leads to now.  Mark Thompson’s 2008, The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919, is one of the best in recent years, and not only because of the specifics about the fierce fighting on the Italian front during its most deadly war.

Books The White War CoverThe White War is more than a military history, though there is plenty of that with excellent and judicious passages about governmental manipulation and in-fighting, war time decisions and failures, strategy and tactics. It also covers more than just the Italian side of things.  The Austrian actions and reactions are often part of the narrative, along with occasional remarks on Czech, Hungarian, Croat, and Slovene participation. Thompson’s previous writing about the Balkans serves him well as background and source.  He brings light to human motivation: of those who wanted the war; of those who connived  and agitated to move Italy from neutrality –in fact from out of an 1889 treaty of alliance with Germany and Austria to intervention against them; and of those who fought it with mixtures of patriotic pride, belligerent jingoism and teeth-gritting endurance.  Excerpts from soldiers’ letters and diaries, books published by some, interviews with elderly veterans in the early 2000s, bring a sense of ordinary men.  His conclusions as to the war fervor of the intellectuals, command incompetence in the army, the individual bravery in battle, and endurance of intolerable conditions, of fellow-feeling for the enemy, are backed by evidence.  History and story become one, in a way that is readable and vastly informative

In twenty eight chapters, plus a very useful appendix, there are 405 pages of reading plus another 50 for notes, bibliography and index.

The early chapters set the stage for the war years to come, the still stirring currents of the Risorgimento and the wars of Italian unity fifty years earlier, the fervor of two senior politicians, the northern industrialists and the press to enter the war —

… newspapers like Corriere della Serra “shrieked that neutrality was ‘suicide.’”

An outspoken and visible group of cultural intellectuals led by Gabriele D’Annunzio clamored loudly not just for intervention but for the blessings of blood.  In early May, 1915 before Italy entered the war, he gave a public speech in which he proclaimed:

We shall not let Italy be dishonoured; we shall not let the fatherland perish.’ He tells the crowd that they want ‘a greater Italy, not by acquisition but by conquest, not measured in shame but as the price of blood and glory’.

Opposition rose as well and continued throughout the war,  much of it instinctual and spontaneous from a hard pressed peasantry, particularly in the south.  The Italian Socialist party, with notable exceptions (Benito Mussolini chief among them), continued its opposition throughout the war while sister parties in France, Germany and elsewhere, almost immediately took up national patriotic support of the war.

The central chapters, each beginning with relevant epigrams from Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Napoleon and others, cover the war itself.  For some general readers there may be too much of a detail load of particular battles, crossed signals, the names of towns and rivers.  For others, that detail is what builds the sense of not just this war, but all wars.  The attacks and retreats, the positions held at great odds and those taken to everyone’s surprise, the atrocities carried out, and alleged are what, after all, constitute war, and are where human motivation and action – which we so desperately need to understand– take place.

The first use of poison gas was by the Austrians on the 29th of June, 1916.

‘Dead! They were all dead! Eyes rolling, foam on their mouths.’ The brass stars on their uniforms and the metal of their rifles were discoloured green. Outrage was compounded when studded maces were found in the trenches. These had been used to finish off the gassed victims. The maces were exhibited in schools around Italy to prove the contrast between Habsburg barbarism and Italy’s just struggle – what the Supreme Command called the ‘sublime goodness’ of the war.

The dead from a poison gas attack near San Martino of Carso, June 30, 1916

The dead from a poison gas attack near San Martino of Carso, June 30, 1916

The final two chapters follow the post-war negotiations between the allies,  England and France trying to keep Italy to the agreements of the Treaty of London which brought it into the war, Italy pushing for more.  Wilson’s godfathering the state of Yugoslavia from ethnically diverse parts of the collapsed Hapsburg Empire added to the continuing sense of grievance by the Italians, who pressed hard for the port city of Fiume, now Rijeka in Croatia.  An able telling of how the seeds of resentment were fertilized as returning veterans took up Mussolini’s cry of rebuilding the nation through the sacrifice of blood. Within a year of the peace treaty the first groups of fasci were forming.

The appendix adds a fascinating look at the 1866 “Third War of Italian Independence, ” where the irredentist fervor that had simmered throughout the end of the century to come to a boil in 1915 had begun. The players were Austria and Prussia, Italy and France in different and shifting configurations than those of 1914.  Austria had ceded Lombardy in 1859 after a French-Italian armed effort.  Though still holding Venice and Venezia their grip was not secure. France wanted Italy to have Venice but to keep the Vatican a free state.  Prussia saw a chance to topple Austria with the right help from Italy. In the end, fighting, threats of fighting, diplomacy and agreements led Austria to give Venezia to France who then gave it to Italy.  The south Tyrol however remained in Austrian hands.  Thus the double shame that fueled the irredentists: Italy had not made its claims stick by force of arms.  Honor had to be assuaged and all territories taken by blood and courage!

Separating the predominantly military central chapters are several of more thematic interest:  the ethnic populations of the Hapsburg empire and what war and occupation did to them; the cause of and effect of interment of civilians on both sides; population transfers, spontaneous and enforced; the poisonous attitudes in the high officer class, often infected with a pernicious social Darwinism:

“Outside the struggle there is only putrefaction, dissolution, death.”  –from an army training manual.

Despite brave statements about Italian manhood and the “vitalism” of the nation, there was a complete lack of training, logistics, and hygiene in the field armies.  Many brigades, organized around regional identity,  could not understand one another (a commonly understood Italian had barely begun and wasn’t complete until the early days of television in the 1950s.) Senior staff, beginning with General Cadorna himself were infected with what is called “a mystical sadism.”  General Vincenzo Garioni, for example, argued that “the massacre of infantry should be seen as ‘a necessary holocaust’. The slaughter was therapeutic, a purgative that strengthened the army for future victories.”

Outside the army, journalists and editors who felt it was their patriotic duty to keep the spirits of the nation up no matter what they saw or knew closely collaborated with the government leaders and the military Supreme Command. Obvious failures of supply, logistics or battle decisions, much less the true morale of the men, could not be reported for fear of being accused of treason.

The White War is not just a history of dates and battles.  Thompson show the chain of attitudes, beliefs, decisions and actions that led Italians into a war in which it was the only nation without a claim to “self defense.” Long nurtured resentments, belief in national identity forged in war, business opportunities in weapons and ammunition manufacturing as well as dreams of new markets in new lands all drove the whirlwind. Thompson is unsparing in his dissection of incredible command incompetence, intelligence ignored and lessons unlearned in twelve different “Battles of the Isonzo (River),” the high Carso plateau and the winter-fierce Dolomite Mountains where more were killed in avalanches (and cold) than by shells or bullets. By war’s end some 1.3 million Italians had died, three times the deaths in WW II. Austria-Hungary had over 2 million deaths, about one-third on the Italian front.

Quite a lesson in human behavior.


Other reviews, all favorable:

Max Hastings

Piers Brendon at the Guardian

Peter Popham at the Independent