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

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

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....

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Title:The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919
Author:Mark Thompson
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Edition Language:English

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

  • Stephen

    By 1915, what began as a conflict between Austria and Serbia had broadened into the Great War, whose largest contenders were not parties to the initial dispute. The war became truly global as countries the world over joined the Allies or the Central Powers, using the struggle to pursue their own ends; such was the case with Japan, which declared war on Germany not to avenge Belgium, but to snatch up the Kaiser’s Asian colonies. Closer to the heart of the battle was Italy’s role in the fray; alth

    By 1915, what began as a conflict between Austria and Serbia had broadened into the Great War, whose largest contenders were not parties to the initial dispute. The war became truly global as countries the world over joined the Allies or the Central Powers, using the struggle to pursue their own ends; such was the case with Japan, which declared war on Germany not to avenge Belgium, but to snatch up the Kaiser’s Asian colonies. Closer to the heart of the battle was Italy’s role in the fray; although the recently-unified kingdom began 1914 in a defensive alliance with both Austria and Germany, it delayed entry while it considered better alternatives. Finally deciding that reclaiming more of its ‘historic’ territory from its border was better than attacking France for no reason at all, Italy entered into the war in the early summer of its second year. So began five years of tragedy, creating a victory as sad as any loss. Such is the story of The White War, which is excellent even though disheartening.

    I have previously regarded the butchery of the Somme as the Great War’s most depressing moment, but it now has a rival, for the Italian front reads like one long prolonged experience of the Somme. The star and culprit of the show is General Cadorna, a man who was invested with considerable power and claimed even more as the war progressed, who launched ten successive attempts at the same Austrian lines over the course of two years with precious little to show for his efforts. Despite enjoying considerable advantages in men and material, the Italian army under Cardona’s command gave new meaning to SNAFU, never learning to adapt to the new style of warfare, not even incorporating lessons from its allies on the western front. So extraordinarily bad is Cardona at waging war that the Austrian army, in other accounts and fronts lampooned for its own failures, appears focused, potent, and grimly efficient by comparison. Only when the Austrians launch an attack that destroys all of the blood-won progress of the three years preceding, and even threaten Venice, is Cardona sacked and the Italian army saved. Reorganizing and pushing forward, the Italians won their greatest victories only when peace talks were already in progress, and the terms being penciled in – but even then, Italy’s redemption was squandered by its own leaders’ politicking, For all of its millions lost, Italy ended the war despised by Europe and already at daggers with its new neighbors, the Slavic nations.

    It’s a sad, frustrating story, but a story easy to experience as delivered by Mark Thompson. He’s more personable than scholarly, sometimes relaxing into a present-tense narrative of the war that would no doubt annoy history professors insisting on a more objective and consistent residence in the past tense. Italy makes for a fascinating front, as the mountains and hills between it and the Austro-Hungarian border are far different terrain than the plains of Flanders field. The text is supplemented by maps that make the difficult terrain’s role easier to see, but The White War is more than combat. Beginning with Italy’s extensive diplomatic dickering, it pauses from the action throughout to offer looks at the home front, or other aspects of the Italian experience. These excerpts reveal the relatively new nation fracturing under the stress of war, stress made worse by Cadorna’s heavy-handed approach. It’s an old joke that “beatings will continue until morale improves”, but such was Cardorna’s practice; outraged by the lack of disincline among the army, he reinstituted the Roman practice of decimation (deliberating killing every tenth man in a unit to punish it), treated prisoners as traitors, and punished even civilians for being less than enthusiastic about the war.

    The White War commends itself to those interested in learning about the Italian experience, even if that experience showcases the most frustrating and horrific aspects of the conflict.

  • Margaret Sankey

    Picture the meat grinder trenches of WWI Flanders. Now, tilt them up 40 degrees and add Alpine weather conditions. Not to mention the deeply ingrained culture of full frontal attack to prove national spirit, the decimation by lot of units for even casual breeches of discipline (Cadorna deserves some ugly ring of hell), the shortage of supplies so bad winter rations were 1500 calories a day, the horrific many battles of the Isonzo (and Caporetto, good lord), the appearance of a 25-year old Erwin

    Picture the meat grinder trenches of WWI Flanders. Now, tilt them up 40 degrees and add Alpine weather conditions. Not to mention the deeply ingrained culture of full frontal attack to prove national spirit, the decimation by lot of units for even casual breeches of discipline (Cadorna deserves some ugly ring of hell), the shortage of supplies so bad winter rations were 1500 calories a day, the horrific many battles of the Isonzo (and Caporetto, good lord), the appearance of a 25-year old Erwin Rommel with inventive German troops, and Gabriele D'Annunzio bragging about shooting at his own men because to die victorious is beautiful. No wonder Italian soldiers wrote that they envied French cousins on the Western Front, or why Austrian officers would fire one pass with a machine gun from their fortification and then beg the Italians not to continue the assault because it was traumatizing for them to inflict the ensuing massacre.

  • Ryan Wulfsohn

    Excellent! A most interesting and well-written book, on a subject about which I knew very little , the campaign between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire in World War I. Thanks to Mr Thompson I am now much better informed on this aspect of the war, during which most of the extremely bloody and fairly pointless fighting took place in difficult mountainous terrain (the Dolomites and the Isonzo valley, the latter of which must rate with the Somme, Verdun and Ypres as one of the great killing gr

    Excellent! A most interesting and well-written book, on a subject about which I knew very little , the campaign between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire in World War I. Thanks to Mr Thompson I am now much better informed on this aspect of the war, during which most of the extremely bloody and fairly pointless fighting took place in difficult mountainous terrain (the Dolomites and the Isonzo valley, the latter of which must rate with the Somme, Verdun and Ypres as one of the great killing grounds of the early 20th century ). Comprehensive without being overlong and succinct without oversimplifying the subject.

  • Paola

    The

    is the term used to refer to the fighting on the Italian Alps during the First World War, on the Eastern Front, engaging mostly Italy and Austria.

    In this very legible account of the White War, the strategy and conduct of war, the political situation in climate in both Italy and the Austrian-Hungarian empire and above all the status of the Italian soldiers at the front (and their shockingly incompetent Chief of Staff) are woven into perceptive analyses of how Italian c

    The

    is the term used to refer to the fighting on the Italian Alps during the First World War, on the Eastern Front, engaging mostly Italy and Austria.

    In this very legible account of the White War, the strategy and conduct of war, the political situation in climate in both Italy and the Austrian-Hungarian empire and above all the status of the Italian soldiers at the front (and their shockingly incompetent Chief of Staff) are woven into perceptive analyses of how Italian culture and climate fed off the war and in turn fed it back.

    In this respect chapter 20 (of the 28 in the book) is particularly interesting, as it discusses the connections between war and cultural currents, especially Futurism, and how it prepared the ground for the flourishing of Fascism.

    This is not a piece of scholarly work in the sense that, in the author's words, it is

    The references are very detailed, and it will be, at least for me, a treasure trove of material on the great war.

    The book contains interesting photos from the time, but more can be found

    .

    Narration often is not linear, especially at the beginning, but it relies on a relatively limited set of facts (e.g. who was allied to whom) and it is broadly self contained (it really only focus on the Eastern front), so that even those less familiar with WWI will be able to navigate it without trouble.

    A recommended read, especially in this Centenary year 2014.

  • Bill

    This is a very engaging survey of an aspect of the first world war that has neglected by historians in the last half century. What emerges is a narrative describing an utterly unnecessary war waged with the grossest incompetence and knavery by Italy. When the war started, Italy was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but a coterie of politicians and jingoists maneuvered a weak government into turning on Austria in an effort to take some territory and cities that had some Italian population.

    This is a very engaging survey of an aspect of the first world war that has neglected by historians in the last half century. What emerges is a narrative describing an utterly unnecessary war waged with the grossest incompetence and knavery by Italy. When the war started, Italy was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but a coterie of politicians and jingoists maneuvered a weak government into turning on Austria in an effort to take some territory and cities that had some Italian population.

    This area principally centered around Trieste, but to take Trieste the territory north, mostly a mountainous region also had to be taken. Starting in 1915, the Italians launched at least ten major offensives which gained very little at very great cost. The White War mainly presents the Italian side of this campaign, and offers interesting insights into the effect of a corrupt press, and an army whose generals showed more brutality toward their own troops than the they did to the enemy.

    The last campaign of the war was a huge defeat for Italy and is usually known by the area where the Austrians, with a lot of help from German troops, broke through the Italian defenses: Caporetto. Thompson includes some observations that Ernest Hemingway offered in A Farewell to Arms. I have to say that my appreciation for what Hemingway wrote in the early chapters of that novel were much enhanced by this history of that battle and all the pointless and futile carnage that preceded it.

  • Sotiris Karaiskos

    The Italian front is certainly the most neglected by the historians parts of the First World War. This void comes to cover the writer by presenting us all the time history that has evolved there. It starts with the data on which the decision to join the allied camp was based, with decades of territorial claims being the main cause. It then passes through all the great battles, with the thousands of victims, that ended up with no result, reaching the Italians' near defeat, eventually ending in th

    The Italian front is certainly the most neglected by the historians parts of the First World War. This void comes to cover the writer by presenting us all the time history that has evolved there. It starts with the data on which the decision to join the allied camp was based, with decades of territorial claims being the main cause. It then passes through all the great battles, with the thousands of victims, that ended up with no result, reaching the Italians' near defeat, eventually ending in the victory that was due to the collapse of the western front. Of particular interest is the extensive reference to the Italian philosophy of this war, which became the raw material for the creation of fascism. A very interesting book through which the reader can be informed about every aspect of this story. My only objection is that the author does not quite show us the Austrian and German side and that I think is a major omission. Otherwise, however, I was pleased with what I read.

    Το ιταλικό μέτωπο είναι σίγουρα το πιο παραμελημένο από τους ιστορικούς κομμάτι του πρώτου Παγκοσμίου Πολέμου. Αυτό το κενό έρχεται να το καλύψει ο συγγραφέας παρουσιάζοντας μας όλο το χρονικό της ιστορίας που εξελίχθηκε εκεί. Ξεκινάει από τα δεδομένα πάνω στα οποία βασίστηκε η απόφαση για την ένταξη στο συμμαχικό στρατόπεδο, με τις εδαφικές διεκδικήσεις δεκαετιών να είναι η κύρια αιτία. Στη συνέχεια περνάει φτάνει σε όλες τις μεγάλες μάχες, με τα χιλιάδες θύματα, που δεν κατέληξαν πουθενά, φτάνοντας την παραλίγο μεγάλη ήττα των Ιταλών, καταλήγοντας τελικά στη νίκη που οφειλόταν στην κατάρρευση του δυτικού μετώπου. Ιδιαίτερο ενδιαφέρον έχει η εκτεταμένη αναφορά στη φιλοσοφία των Ιταλών για αυτόν το πόλεμο που έγινε η πρώτη ύλη για τη δημιουργία του φασισμού. Ένα πολύ ενδιαφέρον βιβλίο μέσα από το οποίο ο αναγνώστης μπορεί να ενημερωθεί για κάθε πτυχή αυτής της ιστορίας. Η μόνη ένσταση που έχω είναι ότι ο συγγραφέας δεν μας δείχνει αρκετά την πλευρά των Αυστριακών και των Γερμανών και αυτό νομίζω ότι είναι μία σημαντική παράλειψη. Κατά τα άλλα, όμως, έμεινα ικανοποιημένος από αυτά που διάβασα.

  • J.M. Hushour

    Ever wonder why northern Italy is German?

    "White War" strikes a nice balance between a straightforward military history and the more nuanced political/cultural aspects. The Italian/Habsburg front was the lamer part of World War I, in some respects. An analogy might be, this front was to the Great War what "Attack of the Clones" was to "The Empire Strikes Back", that is, a pathetic shadow of an inimitable event.

    However, despite that, Thompson pulls a fast one and makes it actually interesting! Ita

    Ever wonder why northern Italy is German?

    "White War" strikes a nice balance between a straightforward military history and the more nuanced political/cultural aspects. The Italian/Habsburg front was the lamer part of World War I, in some respects. An analogy might be, this front was to the Great War what "Attack of the Clones" was to "The Empire Strikes Back", that is, a pathetic shadow of an inimitable event.

    However, despite that, Thompson pulls a fast one and makes it actually interesting! Italy, betraying her Central Power allies, waged a stupid and badly-ran war from the Trentino to the environs of Trieste in an attempt to expand her borders into areas that honestly had little-to-nothing to do with Italy. The Austro-Hungarians, masters of the same insipid imperialism, tried to defend their crumbling interests in the face of rising ethno-nationalisms. A clusterfuck, politically, all around, the front was essentially used as a diversionary tactic by the Allies and Central Powers. The Italian forces, commanded by the astonishingly inept Cadorna, managed to fuck up left and right to a point where the Austrian forces were nearly able to pee down into Venice.

    The war aside, the best bits here are cultural and political. Thompson does a fine job digging into Italian irredentism and the proto-fascist nationalism, embodied in the idiotic d'Annunzio and the always hilarious Futurists, as well as Italy's laughable claims to large swathes of southern Europe.

  • Steve

    On the hardcover version of Mark Thompson’s

    , there’s a remarkable picture of tiny soldiers jumping out of their snow packed trenches. In front of them is the steep side of a mountain. Talk about the Mountains of Madness! But that’s pretty much the Italian front in World War 1. Overall Thompson does a fine job with this criminally overlooked part of the war, providing a good shapshot of Italian politics, military tactics, and the various historic

    On the hardcover version of Mark Thompson’s

    , there’s a remarkable picture of tiny soldiers jumping out of their snow packed trenches. In front of them is the steep side of a mountain. Talk about the Mountains of Madness! But that’s pretty much the Italian front in World War 1. Overall Thompson does a fine job with this criminally overlooked part of the war, providing a good shapshot of Italian politics, military tactics, and the various historical personalities involved. At its best

    is a cultural history of the war in Italy (and you can clearly see the roots of the coming Fascist state). It’s also a superb resource for Hemingway junkies seeking background for

    . I couldn’t help but think that a shorter version of the book would of made an excellent appendix to Paul Fussell’s

    .

    So why only 3 stars? Well, truth be told, I found

    a slog to read. I don’t know what it is about World War 1 books, but it always seems to result in a numbing list of stupid assaults ordered by stupid generals against hills with numbers. (Not too long back I had a similar reading experience involving the battle for the Somme.) The landscape (or in this case, mountain ranges) soon becomes a battered pudding of earth and flesh, with multiple layers. No wonder this generation felt so lost. My distracted reading aside, one of the best chapters in the book is devoted to Italian war poets, and left me wanting Thompson to expand this chapter into longer study. The poems – or excerpts, are that good. Anyone who has read, and admired, the World War 1 poets (who are largely represented as English), should read this chapter.

  • Honza Prchal

    The author, mark Thomspon did two things quite well. He wrote elegantly to the point of occasional lyricism. He also picked a subject that has been disgracefully ignored because of historians' prejudices, both Italian and otherwise. If that were the end of it, I'd give the book four or five stars, and I unhestitatingly recommend it to people interested in the subject because it is the only game in town.

    Mark Thompson knows his Italian literature encyclopaedically, but this book is not about that,

    The author, mark Thomspon did two things quite well. He wrote elegantly to the point of occasional lyricism. He also picked a subject that has been disgracefully ignored because of historians' prejudices, both Italian and otherwise. If that were the end of it, I'd give the book four or five stars, and I unhestitatingly recommend it to people interested in the subject because it is the only game in town.

    Mark Thompson knows his Italian literature encyclopaedically, but this book is not about that, as it doesn't translate well.

    The author has a humane and deft grasp of Italian politics, but not only does this topic seem to bore him, but he throws in asides about British politics, about which he is well-informed, and American politics, about which he is both ignorant and uninterested. (He seems to think neo-cons share "realist" school contempt for the niceties of popular sovereignty and individual rights, when they are widely hated for insisting that rights belong to EVERYONE, even Arabs and Muslims with whom one may be fighting. When I read that very early aside, I immediately assumed he got his ideas of America from The Guardian, and, sadly, I was right.) A political history could have been very interesting and readable, but he didn't write it. There are glimpses of genius, especially towards the end, on this subject, where he finally combines political and cultural history with Italian and Central European politics. I fear most readers will not get that far.

    Where Mark Thompson has more difficulty, is with military history. He seems to have slogged through a sub-Ph.D. level course of graduate study in the military history of the Italian front, come to the correct conclusions, and been unable to surface for air long enough to coherently relate them to those without historical training or a deep familiarity with some aspect of the subject. He chose maps that hint at real suitability for the subject (they'd be fine if indexed with grid references or if there were more of them). An e-reader with bookmarked Internet maps would have helped, the way Bible reading benefits from the same when one gets to the fighty bits.

    Even were the map problem solved, however, Thompson neither explains basic tactical and strategic terms to those unfamiliar with the great war and those that preceded it, nor does he run his points to a satisfying conclusion in military terms the way his gripping conclusion does about the shorter, but far more engaging, history of the Savoyard conquest of the Veneto. One gets a fairly deep psychological portrait of Cadorna early on, but never the king or Diaz, and plenty of engaging hints about how he managed Italy's greatest Army, but only hints about why certain traits failed in their execution and about the end of his life.

    It is true that the modern reader is spoilt by works like The Face of Battle, The Mask of Command, Band of Brothers and even Carnage and Culture and Guns, Germs, and Steel. Not all authors can rise to such heights. Still, Mark Thompson has clearly read classics before and must have known his work would be compared to them. Sadly, his focus is both too fine grained (as with Cadorna) and not detailed enough. The frequent digressions that do not quite reach a firmly supported conclusion almost always seem correct, but skip steps in reasoning that would allow the reader to grasp why. Sadly, the same is true of descriptions of the fighting. Even when Austro-Hungarian hunger and dearth are described, they explode upon the reader like a bomb, and do not really explain how the Empire had tried, and ultimately failed, to deal with them, or even how the Italians played a role in creating them. That disjointedness makes a work with a conceptually interesting narrative frame, good writing, and an excellent subject fall short.

    Again, I unhesitatingly recommend Thompson's book for those interested in the subject, but I also recommend frequent references to Britannica and Wikipedia during its digestion to have it make sense.

    If the author revisits his subject in a decade, with heavy editing/explanatory supplements from a military historian, this could become a top flight book. As it is, the less Catholic-hating and more humane readers of the Guardian who wish to see their domestic opponents of days past as actual human beings will understand why that paper gave the work top marks. It is humane and does the actors on the ground justice, even as it reinforces the general convictions of the nicer sort of Guardian reader. Sadly, those people want to feel good about themselves and aren't too interested in military history anyhow. Other readers, however, will likely feel disappointed by hopes justifiably raised by the book and frustratingly unmet.

    The author is a good man. The subject is a good one. The work is not the best he is capable of, or even good work by his standards. And just for good measure, harrumph!

  • Ozymandias

    This book was an interesting subject for me since I’ve read many books on the Western Front but never one on the Italian one. I had a basic idea of it from general histories of the war (plus a bit of Hemingway) but this was for the most part uncharted territory for me. As such I found the topic fascinating. Italy had most of the same horrors as the Western Front (a cause no one could explain, costly assaults that achieved nothing, numbing trench warfare, callous generals...) but placed in a more

    This book was an interesting subject for me since I’ve read many books on the Western Front but never one on the Italian one. I had a basic idea of it from general histories of the war (plus a bit of Hemingway) but this was for the most part uncharted territory for me. As such I found the topic fascinating. Italy had most of the same horrors as the Western Front (a cause no one could explain, costly assaults that achieved nothing, numbing trench warfare, callous generals...) but placed in a more extreme environment. The Italians started the war to “rescue” land occupied by Italians happier under Habsburg rule, did nothing but attack the same place (there were no fewer than twelve battles of Isonzo), failed to equip their men with wirecutters or entrenching tools but expected results anyway, and carried out a reign of terror with summary executions of people selected by lot or for as little a cause as saluting improperly. It’s like Flanders on steroids. And the trenches ran up the Alps with the Italian forces on the wrong side, making this a surprisingly beautiful war as well.

    One thing I did not expect (though perhaps I should have) is the presence of fascists already all over Italy. I suppose I’d always assumed Italy was a lot like Germany, a number of hypernationalistic and racist elements present but not put together in the right order or with the right level of fanatacism. But it took Germany over a decade to descend to the level of beasts while in Italy it sprung up right away, and this despite the fact that they’d been on the winning side. The explanation for this is inescapable, but it had never occurred to me because Italy’s not a focus in most WW1 books: Italy was already full of fascists before the war. All that they lacked was a man to organize them into a single party.

    Speaking of, D’Annunzio is one of the most revolting human beings I’ve ever heard of. His cries for war positively revel in slaughter. The man had an unhealthy lust for blood and serious psychological issues.

    Frankly, I lost most of my sympathy for Italy the second I realized that this man was a national hero and beloved poet. And other poets are just as bad. Check out this one by Corrado Govini called

    All Italians weren’t like that of course, but these works were popular and clearly represented a radical statement of beliefs nonetheless within the normal spectrum of thought. In essence, the Italians were ahead of the curve. They were fighting their war for explicitly racial and imperialistic ends. The right to rule over all land ever held by their race sounds a hell of a lot like the Italian and German motives in the sequel.

    On top of that is the ruling powers, and frankly Italy was better off under the fascists. At least they focused their energies on making life miserable for people

    Italy. Pre-fascist Italians had to deal with constant defeats, assaults on Austrian fortifications with no trench-digging tools of their own, endless frontal charges up the same set of unforgiving mountains, poor supplies and resources, winters with 2-8 meters of snow regularly and avalanches, and incompetent and unfeeling generals who explained nothing, didn’t believe in relief, regarded POWs as deserters, executed deserters or quaverers with machine guns, and chose men at random for execution to strike terror into the heart of the survivors. All-in-all they make the Habsburgs look competent and lovable.

    It’s no wonder the Italian masses turned to fascism given what the Republic did to them. Alone among the belligerents the Italians refused to send supplies to their POWs, feeling that they deserved to suffer for betraying their race by not fighting to the death. They believed summary executions were the best motivation for sagging morale. Lack of enthusiasm was enough to get you shot. Failure to remove a pipe before saluting a commanding officer could get you shot. Spilling your soup could get you shot. It reads like a bad joke. And they regularly placed their machine guns behind the trenches, manned by MPs so that anyone falling back could be shot en masse. High casualties were a matter of pride. It meant you deserved the victory you’d undoubtedly achieve. And somehow the army never felt the need to provide any justification or purpose for their cause. Imagine hearing angry voices exult you and your sacrifice after years of serving men who were at best indifferent and at worst malicious.

    All this is fascinating and I can recommend the book for that reason. That said, it does have its flaws. I had very little understanding about what, exactly, was going on in these battles. The book is mainly interested in being a social history and covers the campaigns in a rather vague and anecdotal manner. There was something off about the social history chapters too. I found them somewhat alienating and detached. You don’t really get a feel for what it was like on one of these campaigns. Instead you just get a litany of suffering. That was undoubtedly a key element in this war, but it all felt a little too detached.

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