The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, by Mark Thompson
Perseus Books (2012), Paperback, 454 pages
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.