Mark Thompson. The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919. New York: Basic Books, 2009. 454 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-01329-6.
Reviewed by Jeffrey R. Smith (School of Social Sciences, Northwestern State University)
Published on H-German (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
A Tragic and Brutal "Diversionary Front"
The literature on World War I for English-speaking audiences has long seemed focused on the western front, but in recent years this literature has opened up more fully to other theaters of the war. Mark Thompson continues this trend in this illuminating study, which focuses on the conflict between Italy and Austria-Hungary, primarily from the former's perspective. While this conflict remained relatively insignificant from a purely military standpoint in determining the overall course and outcome of the war after 1915, Thompson nevertheless reveals the extent to which the carnage of the battles and especially the ruthlessness of Italy's military and civilian leaders would not only result in the deaths of nearly 700,000 Italian and over 300,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers, but would also have significant consequences for the nation's political development for the twentieth century.
Although Italy entered the war on the side of the Entente in 1915 after remaining officially neutral through the war's first year, the aims of Italy's leaders resembled much more the revisionism of Germany than the defensive objectives of Britain and France, according to Thompson. In fact, he maintains, Italy's decision to go to war was largely the result of ambitions and manipulations among the ruling elites, specifically prime minister Antonio Salandra and foreign minister Sidney Sonnino, who met secretly with representatives of Britain and France in April 1915 to work out the Treaty of London, which promised Italy extensive annexations along Austria-Hungary's Adriatic coast as well as South Tyrol in return for attacking the Habsburg Empire. The central problem, however, was lack of support, much less enthusiasm, for the war among most elements of the Italian population. The government therefore enlisted popular radical nationalists, especially poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, as well as renegade socialist Benito Mussolini, to mobilize public opinion. By trumpeting the claim that going to war against Austria would finally complete Italian unity by allowing the acquisition of territories in which Italian-speaking populations still found themselves under Habsburg rule, d'Annunzio in particular repeatedly equated Italy's engagement in the Great War with the ultimate fulfillment of the Italian nation. A critical objective in this context was acquisition of the thriving port of Trieste, a goal that ultimately served a useful propaganda function for an army made up largely of conscripted peasants who had little or no idea why they were fighting at all. Finally, as Italy's famous liberal intellectual Benedetto Croce, a vocal opponent of intervention, noted, bringing Italy into the First World War would "supplant the liberal [political] order with an authoritarian regime, a modern plutocracy, unencumbered with ideologies and scruples" (p. 36). Here Thompson argues that the motivations for Italy's entry into World War I and the social, political, and military results that followed were the first steps in Italy's transition to fascism.
Because the Central Powers did not anticipate Italian entry into the war (Italy had been a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria since the 1890s), Austria's Italian borders were defended only lightly. Austria needed to concentrate the bulk of its multi-ethnic army to fight the Russians in the East. This situation should have given Italy ample military advantage. Nevertheless, the Italian armed forces, recently placed under the command of General Luigi Cadorna, were "sent to the front sketchily trained and ill-equipped, sacrificed to the doctrine of the frontal assault, ineptly supported by artillery" (pp. 5-6). Additionally, Thompson maintains, Italians faced extremely dangerous and unfavorable terrain on which to fight their enemies, notably the snow-covered Alps of the Tyrol and the sharp, rocky Corso plateau across the Isonzo River, a locus of no less than twelve battles that resulted in massive Italian casualties with only minimal gains in the war's first year (1915-16). Because the troops' lack of awareness of why they were fighting and suffering such massive casualties could cause breakdown of discipline and perhaps mutiny, Cadorna insisted on the most extreme forms of discipline. "Order, authority, and obedience would be maintained with indestructible firmness," was the Supreme Command's directive from the outset (p. 262). But by 1917, Cadorna's policies had escalated to a level of brutality unsurpassed by any other wartime power. Concerned by the possibility of desertions and mutinies by various brigades over their abysmal conditions (instances are documented of entire brigades fighting for two years straight without any leave), Cadorna revived the ancient Roman practice of decimation. Random executions of individual soldiers, according to Cadorna's theory, meant that comrades in arms would be "terrified into complete obedience" (p. 263). Thompson refers to 1917, when, for example, nine soldiers of the Ravenna brigade were arbitrarily executed after their regiment protested the cancellation of leave. What thus emerged from Italy's wartime experience was a subordination of civilian authority to a virtual military dictatorship that not only guaranteed that Cadorna's policies were unchallenged until his removal at the end of 1917, but also had significant ramifications for Italy's political future.
After Russia's Brusilov offensive against Austria in the East from June to December 1916, most of the offensive capability of the Austro-Hungarian military was eliminated, resulting in the placement of the remaining Habsburg forces under German command and their supplementation with German regiments. This development would have significant consequences for Cadorna's army in the so-called Battle of Caporetto (also known as the twelfth battle of the Isonzo) during October-November 1917. This Austro-German offensive, in which Ernst Rommel participated, delivered a staggering defeat to the Italians, not only reversing all of Italy's gains up to that point, but also crossing into northeastern Italy itself, causing a widespread fear that even Venice could be vulnerable. Only with the introduction of British reinforcements in the war's final year was the Italian front stabilized and the losses at Caporetto ultimately reversed. As the Allies headed toward victory in 1918, Italy did not play a significant military role in this outcome.
For Thompson, Caporetto emerges as a critical moment in the Italian war effort with far-reaching short-term as well as long-term consequences. Although the disaster forced Cadorna's resignation and led to significant reforms that improved conditions in the army, Cadorna quickly launched a public campaign, with some support in the cabinet, that not only absolved him of responsibility but ultimately blamed the defeat on "traitors and cowards," essentially an Italian version of Germany's Dolchstoßlegende. As he organized his fascist movement in the early 1920s, Mussolini elevated Caporetto to the status of a defining moment in Italian military history, essentially modifying Cadorna's myth into a story of an honorable army persevering in the face of unfavorable odds and, more significantly, of the civilian government's toleration of "defeatists, profiteers, and bourgeois draft-dodgers" at home (pp. 326-27). This myth endured throughout Mussolini's regime.
In sum, both 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. The only issue for historians of the war specifically is the fact that Thompson, as he himself admits in his acknowledgements, did not set out to undertake a scholarly study based on archival research, but rather a "narrative history" drawn from secondary sources and well-known published contemporary works (p. 440). Professional readers of Thompson's work will discover several significant issues that deserved further exploration in his narrative, such as the relationship between the wartime experience and postwar fascism, a topic that has received extensive treatment and debate from German historians. Perhaps we would benefit from a historical comparison of the Italian and German experiences that placed this important issue in a broader context.
An additional issue that arises from Thompson's book is the Austro-Hungarian war effort on the Italian front. To fight the Italians, Austria's Chief of Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, organized the Fifth Army and placed it under the command of a Croatian general, Svetozar Boroević, the "highest-ranking Yugoslav in the empire," who was unwaveringly loyal to the Habsburg monarchy (p. 82). Commanding a predominantly Slavic army, including a significant number of Bosnian Serb Muslims, and facing what should have been considerably unfavorable odds, Boroević performed exceedingly well against the Italians. Despite Italy's repeated appeals to the Slavic population, Thompson notes, the Fifth Army remained loyal. Because of the Italian focus of his book, Thompson is unable to give this potentially important subject the treatment it otherwise deserves in the context of traditional assumptions regarding the Austrian war effort. The reasons for the loyalty of the Habsburgs' non-German subject populations have been the subject of much discussion among professional historians in the last few years.
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Jeffrey R. Smith. Review of Thompson, Mark, The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919.
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