The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919by Mark Thompson
In May 1915, Italy declared war on the Habsburg Empire. Nearly 750,000 Italian troops were killed in savage, hopeless fighting on the stony hills north of Trieste and in the snows of the Dolomites. To maintain discipline, General Luigi Cadorna restored the Roman practice of decimation, executing random members of units that retreated or rebelled.
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Most of the many books I have read concering the Great War leave me very sad. This one made me very angry. Thompson presents the story of a largely peasant society with a pre-industrial, almost feudal, outlook, dragged into a war that had no meaning to them and even less signficance- and butchered. The slaughter cannot even be defended in the way some authors persuasively argue concerning the war in Flanders and France: that the terrain and technology forced a bloodbath. In The White War, we instead witness officers of incredible arrogance and indifference sacrificing soldiers without intelligence or remorse. One even describes it as a desirable strengthening of the army! What Thompson does extremely well is present the intellectual (I use the word without any sense of it being an intelligent use of intellect) background for an eagerness for the battle and a tolerance for the slaughter. I learned not only about the battles but the artistic and intellectual movements, like Futurism, that made it possible, along with the more commonly cited Italian nationalism ("Irredentism" the operative force here- "redeem" Italian etnic areas outside Italy's pre-war borders) for a handful of middle-class nationalists, opportunistic industrialists, pandering politicians, and proto-fascists like D'Annunzio and Mussolini to send hundreds of thousands to death and maiming with inadequate weapons, training, or leadership. And while it provides an excellent description of the campaigns (TWELVE battles of the Isonzo is indicative of the hopelessness of the Italian campaigns), the real progression of the story is from the dishonest opportunism and false hopes of the Italian entry into the war to the cynicism and bitterness of nominal victory but an actual defeat. It becomes very clear how quickly and easily fascism followed. I enjoyed the references to literature, poetry, horribly irresponisble jingoistic journalism, the writings of veterans, and especialy the interviews with centenarians who survived the Italian holocaust of 1915-18. Thompson does a great service to English-language readers by utilizing so many Italian sources in this fine book.
I would certainly recommend this book to those readers looking for a well-researched account of the land operations in the Austro-Italian conflict of WWI. The book is well-written and is told primarily from the Italian aspect. I was somewhat disappointed in that there was virtually no mention of naval actions in the theater (though I'd imagine the naval side wouldn't fit with the title). I also found the author's fixation with Italian literature, and particularly poetry, written during and after the war somewhat tedious at times. It almost seems like you're reading a book club's critique at some points (he devotes an entire chapter to Italian war poetry and significant sections of other chapters to reviewing the quality of books, articles and even motion pictures produced by Italians after the war). I can understand the reasoning for including the subject in the account of the conflict, but to spend as much time as he does in that area seems excessive. Overall I enjoyed the book and I definitely consider it a worthwhile purchase.