The White War

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

Perseus Books (2012), Paperback, 454 pages

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In that great exercise in criminal futility that history knows as World War I or simply the Great War, perhaps the most futile campaign of all is one that has gained surprisingly little attention in the years since. Between 1915 and 1918, Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire fought bitterly and bloodily for control of a miniscule triangle of territory between the Alps and the Adriatic. For all the immense suffering on the Western Front, the horror stretched over a vast area between the Swiss border and the English Channel. On the Italian Front, all this horror was compressed into an area measuring only a few hundred square kilometres. Yet, proportionately, the losses in this campaign were far worse than those on the Western Front. Some 600000 Italians and almost 1.2 million Austro-Hungarians became casualties in this terrible bloodletting, for so little gain that 3 1/2 years of futile Italian offensives failed to recover more than a few alpine peaks and a few square miles of plateau of the territory that the nation went to war to reclaim. In fact, virtually all of Italy’s territorial gains were made after the Armistice, rendering all the loss of life even more futile. Thompson captures this extraordinary exercise in self-delusion and absolute futility in a searing no-holds barred account of the failure of Italy’s newly formed democracy to avert, and then to end this ghastly mistake. Ultimately, the war damaged Italy’s liberal institutions so badly that the country became easy prey for Mussolini and the fascists, thus setting the secene for Italy’s devastation in the next war. Thompson skilfully melds the political shenanigans and the gross incompetence of the generals on both sides with moving, first-hand testimony from those who paid the price, the soldiers on the front-lines. It’s a shocking, but fascinating story, that has recieved too little attention in the years since. Hopefully this terrific book will go some way to remedying that.

9/10

The Blood of Heroes

The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo – and the Sacrifice that Forged a Nation, by James Donovan

Back Bay Books (2013), Paperback, 528 pages

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Before reading this book, I had only the vaguest knowledge about the Alamo. I knew it had been fought as part of some war between the US and Mexico, and that everyone who fought in it had been killed. Much to my surprise, I discovered I was wrong on both counts. The war in question was actually a civil war, fought between the dictatorial Mexican government of General Santa Anna, and the loyal Mexican province of Texas, which was not fighting for independence or to join the USA, but for a better deal from the Mexican government, Indeed, they proudly flew the Mexican flag during the entire battle. And far from everyone in the Alamo being killed, there were survivors, apart from women and children, who were graciously spared by Santa Anna, two slaves and a deserter from the Mexican army who had fought with the Texians were also spared. This is an entertaining, fast-moving piece of historical writing. Donovan makes excellent use of largely-ignored sources, particularly those from the Mexican side, to give a very human account of the tragedy. Not only are the famous figures like Travis, Crockett and Bowie well-covered, but the stories of more anonymous participants are also described in detail. Also given in some depth are the background to the conflict, the machinations which went on in the hopelessly ineffectual Texian government, and Santa Anna’s own troubles in getting his ragtag, poorly fed, clothed and equipped army to the frontline. The real story of this book is that there were no winners. Santa Anna gained little from his victory. Only weeks later he was resoundingly defeated and captured and forced to bargain away Texas as the price for his release. And although Texas did acquire its independence, the cost both human and financial was staggering, which was one of the reasons the new republic very quickly fell into US statehood. This is a worthwhile read, even for those not particularly interested in US or Mexican history. It is an enthralling and very human story.

9/10