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

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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.

With elegance and pathos, historian Mark Thompson relates the saga of the Italian front, the nationalist frenzy and political ...

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

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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.

With elegance and pathos, historian Mark Thompson relates the saga of the Italian front, the nationalist frenzy and political intrigues that preceded the conflict, and the towering personalities of the statesmen, generals, and writers drawn into the heart of the chaos. A work of epic scale, The White War does full justice to the brutal and heart-wrenching war that inspired Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Winner of the 2009 PEN Hessell Tiltman Prize

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

The Weekly Standard
“[A] study as pioneering as it is brilliant.... Drawing on an impressive array of British, Italian, and Austrian sources, including fascinating interviews with survivors, Thompson re-creates the Italo-Austrian conflict in all its facets…. The White War is the work of a bright young historian proving his mettle.”

Dallas Morning News
“Thompson’s book is a comprehensive work following the causes, culture and combat of Italy’s war against Austria-Hungary and Germany…. It’s worthwhile reading and remembering, particularly when trying to comprehend what price victory.”

Robert Fox, Evening Standard
“Brilliant … It is the first general history of the serial incompetence and brutality of the war in north-eastern Italy between 1915 and 1918, which makes it exceptional enough. In its elegant sweep of cultural and political as well as martial themes, it stands alone: it is one of the outstanding history books of the year.”

Christopher Duggan, Times Literary Supplement
“Mark Thompson’s wonderfully rich and poignant study, beautifully written and based on a detailed first-hand knowledge of the terrain in question as well as an impressive array of published Italian sources shows graphically why the events of 1915-18 had such a searing effect on the country’s national psyche.”

Max Hastings, New York Review of Books
“Mark Thompson, a young British writer, can claim a notable achievement with his narrative history of Italy’s World War I experience. With authority, sympathy, and unusual literary skill, he illuminates an aspect of the conflict about which some of us feel embarrassed to have known so little. The battlefield saga is sufficiently fascinating, but eclipsed by the portrait of Italy’s social and cultural experience within which the author sets it…. Thompson’s book gives a fascinating, indeed brilliant, portrait of a society immolated by its own delusions.”

The Economist (Best Books of the Year)
“A startling indictment of the Italian state’s conduct during the first world war, which shows how Italy’s nationalist dream of expansion would turn into the Fascist nightmare.”

John McCourt, Irish Times
“Brilliant… In presenting this conflict with such uncompromising focus and detail, Thompson has successfully accomplished a necessarily uncomfortable act of remembrance…. It should be hailed as the best account yet of what Hemingway described as ‘the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery’ of the Great War and of the experiences of the vast majority of Italian soldiers who, in Giovanni Comisso’s words, had little or no knowledge of ‘what they had done, or why.’”

Peter Popham, Independent
“Thompson’s book is beautifully written, and he skillfully interweaves vivid accounts of military progress with telling vignettes about the more extraordinary figures caught up in the fighting.”

The Washington Times
“[Thompson’s] writing is so vivid, so detailed, so sobering that a reader must take an occasional break from the horrors he describes.”

Newark Star-Ledger
“[A] gripping, superbly written account…”

Michigan War Studies Review
“This is no ordinary work of military history…. Thompson’s narrative strategies make for an engaging, powerful book…. [A] richly textured account of a people and its army at war.”

MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History
“[A] memorable work…. [A] riveting description of World War I’s forgotten front.”

H-Net Reviews
“[I]lluminating…. [B]oth historians and general audiences with interest in the First World War will benefit from Thompson’s study as a contribution toward a more comprehensive, diverse picture of the war than the one to which most western readers are accustomed.”

Military Review
“This narrative of that frostbitten war draws from the work of generations of historians and writers (among them Ernest Hemingway) but gleans vignettes that display the passions of the time and the difficulty of changing a strategy mired in repeated failure.”

Journal of Military History
“Thompson writes well and his narrative flows smoothly and easily. He has the novelist’s ability to capture a character in a phrase, and produces some telling snapshots: Lloyd George’s ‘silver tongue’ and Clemenceau’s ‘salty charisma’ stand out.”

“[A] stunning account of repeated failure and despair, incompetence and opportunism; a human tragedy all too easily entered upon and pursued. In addition to sustained accounts of military engagements, there are vivid portraits of key figures, notably D’Annunzio and Mussolini.”

Publishers Weekly

Independent scholar Thompson (Forging War) is familiar with a burgeoning Italian literature on the Great War's military aspects. He utilizes that material to construct and convey, better than any English-language account, the essence of three years of desperate struggle for the Isonzo River sector in northeastern Italy. Thompson distinguishes elegantly among the 12 battles for this nearly impassable ground, although the book is best understood as an extended essay on the causes, nature and purpose of Italy's involvement. Thompson presents Italy's war as a test of the vitalist spirit (best expressed in futurism) to demonstrate that the country was more than a middle-class illusion. In consequence, Thompson shows, strategic, diplomatic and political vacuums were too often filled with leaders' rhetoric and mythology. Too many generals, like Luigi Cadorna and Luigi Capello, were case studies in arrogant incompetence. In that environment, the less ordinary soldiers knew about causes and purposes, the better. When they failed in their mission, the draconian responses included summary execution. Prisoners of war were treated as cowards. The war, says Thompson, stands as Italy's first "collective national experience" and illustrates the poisonous nature of European nationalism. Photos, maps. (Apr.)

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Library Journal

We barely remember that Italy fought against the Central Powers in World War I, in the Alps and the Dolomites. A million soldiers died, and the political echoes of the disastrous, if victorious, campaign led more or less directly to Mussolini. Thompson's coverage here of World War I away from the Western Front is deep and detailed, showing the horrors of the Italian campaign against Austria, as well as its influence on not only Mussolini (and thus Italian fascism) but writers such as Hemingway and Musil. Valuable for all students of the Great War, both general and advanced.
—Edwin Burgess

Kirkus Reviews
Penetrating study of one of the forgotten fronts of the Great War. Italy went to war with the neighboring Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1915 for complex reasons, writes British historian Thompson (Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Hercegovina, 2003, etc.), not least of them the irredentist view that ethnic Italians belonged to a greater Italy. The Allies abetted this view, promising to render Tyrol, Trieste and the Dalmatian coast to Italy, as well as portions of the Greek islands, Turkey and Africa. Italy's politicians pitched an inadequately prepared and provisioned army against a tactically superior enemy, which held most of the high ground. The "white war" of Thompson's title refers to the snowy peaks along the alpine front, but also to the sheer limestone walls that gleamed white in summer and had to be scaled-the Western front, Thompson memorably notes, tilted 45 degrees. In any season, the front was terrible, and thousands of men died-in sheer percentages, at a higher rate of casualty than in much better-known battles in France and Belgium. A few future historical giants turn up in Thompson's pages, including Benito Mussolini, Gabriele d'Annunzio and Erwin Rommel, but mostly his informants are the forgotten soldiers of the forgotten war, one of whom recalled, "We kill each other like this, coldly, because whatever does not touch the sphere of our own life does not exist." Many of the ethnic groups in which those soldiers figured would reappear in the history of Europe, among them Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Slovenes, "whose alleged pacifism would be a stock joke in Tito's Yugoslavia" but who drew rivers of Italian blood. Ironically, Italy never got its promisedempire, though Mussolini would spend much effort and countless lives seeking it. A much-needed addition to the literature of World War I, which is undergoing substantial revision nearly a century after it was fought. Agent: Jason Cooper/Faber and Faber
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465020379
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 10/19/2010
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 488
  • Sales rank: 205,972
  • Product dimensions: 7.46 (w) x 11.64 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Thompson holds a PhD in Social Sciences from Cambridge. The author of Forging War and A Paper House, he lives in Oxford, England.
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Customer Reviews

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