Thursday, May 15, 2014

The White War

 The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919
©  Mark Thompson
488 pages

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. 


  1. WW1 does seem like a succession of tales of monumental incompetence doesn't it? I am amazed that, by and large, people put up with the slaughter for so long.

    The Italian front doesn't normally get the coverage it deserves. Thanks for pointing this book out.

  2. Has you read any literature on the Italian war before?

    I went after this one almost as a snap decision -- it came up as a related read for another book I was considering, and I in an interlibrary loan request just to see.

  3. I've only read little bits about the Italian campaign, most recently in a general history of the war which I'll be reviewing next Thursday.

    I do like snap decisions book-wise. They've provided me with some great reading usually quite outside my normal 'comfort' zone.


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