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

In an effort to expand my military history knowledge, I decided to read about the Italian Front during World War I.  Generally, this part of the war set Italy against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Mark Thompson traces the reasons for Italian intervention, the fighting between the two adversaries, and the ramifications of Italy’s participation in the Allied victory in his book entitled The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919.

Here is a brief description of the book from the publisher’s website:

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.

The book is an excellent narrative of the battles that occurred along the Italian Front.  However, Thompson also skillfully interposes amongst the narrative chapters other chapters germane to the war.  For example, Thompson discusses the ineptness of the Italian military leadership.  During the disaster of Caporetto (where the Italians lost all of the ground they gained in nearly two years of fighting), General Cadorna ordered units that retreated to be subject to decimation (where men were chosen by lot and shot).  In his discussion of Caporetto, Thompson includes a chapter on the harsh discipline doled out by Cadorna and his subordinate commanders.  Thompson rightly argues that this harsh discipline surpassed the discipline of troops by other countries – with the exception of maybe Russia.  The men responded to this harsh discipline by not fighting as hard and surrendering when they had a chance.

Thompson points out the many flaws of Cadorna – his complete incompetence regarding tactics and strategy.  He insisted on aggressive offensive maneuvers – even after these tactics were disproved on the Western Front.  This insistence ended up killing hundreds of thousands along the Isonzo – there were so many Battles of the Isonzo that they had to be numbered (12 battles).  Thompson contends that Cadorna knew no other means of fighting the Austrians other than ordering lines of men to throw themselves against the barbed wire and machine guns of the enemy.

Along with the military situation, Thompson chronicles the Italian political scene and how it was influenced by the views of the Italian intelligentsia.  He explains that the nationalist fervor of Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and his Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino drove the country to war – their reasoning was hidden from the general population to the point that most of the soldiers did not even know why they were at war.  Their efforts were spurred by an Italian intelligentsia that saw the expansion of Italy as a new age for Rome that would make the Adriatic Sea an Italian one.

Thompson weaves all of the different threads seamlessly.  His writing is easy to follow and comprehend.  It is a surprisingly quick read at 480 pages, including eight pages of black and white photographs.

One point of criticism I have is the poor use of maps – the maps that Thompson includes do not help the reader follow along with the text.  Throughout the book, I had to refer back to a map in the beginning of the book to get an idea of where the action that he was describing occurred.

Overall, this is an excellent summary of the Italian Front in World War I – including excellent chapters on the motivations of the Italian leadership.

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