on 4 May 2009
I'm italian and I know italian literature about the Great War is excellent both in quality and in breadth (altough it is often more devoted to specific topics than to general overviews of the whole war). It is always interesting to see it from a foreigner's point of view, years ago I read Schindler's Isonzo that while it had some qualities it also left a lot to be desired, so when I ordered "The White War" I did it with low expectations. At the end I was much more than surprised, Thompson's work is not only an excellent book by itself but it also compares favourably with the best ones currently available in italian language. Thompson masterly combines all the political, military and social aspects of the war in a single engrossing volume. I must admit that even italian histories of the war usually overlook one or more of the subjects treated by him. He does so with a skilfull use of primary and secondary sources, histories, memories, newpapers, interviews, etc... in which he shows a profound understanding of italian culture and society of early XX century. All his criticisms are always backed up by sources and thoughtfully asserted. And, surprisingly, he's immune by those oversimplifications, slants and prejudices typical of a foreigner studying a so called "minor" front. My only criticisms are minor, among other things Thompson seems to support the idea that an offensive to cut the Trentino salient would have been a valid strategic option, to me this is nonsense. Howewer in the end I can only praise his book and I'd give it 6 stars if possible.
on 12 November 2008
I fully agree with what the other reviewers have said about this book, which is a marvellous overview of the Italian front during 1915-18. Not only a military history - though it is that, of course, but also a political and cultural history. And not only of the Italian experience, even though that is the main focus, but also of "the other side", the multi-national Habsburg empire. The outnumbered Austrian army (with bosnians and croats strongly represented here) fought well on the Italian front, in contrast with other theatres.
The author gives a balanced, beautifully written, exciting and very moving account of this not-so-known part of the Great War: how Italy tumbled into it 1915, the desperate and futile fighting along the Isonzo, the debacle of Caporetto, the recovery and the peace settlement eventually leading to the establishment of fascism. The author is very much inside his material, and the book has a very strong sense both of time and of place. At times it reminded me of Alistair Horne or John Keegan. Strongly recommended, and not only to military history buffs!
on 10 October 2008
For those of you who have read Hemingway's Farewell to Arms, you would be aware that the a war was fought on the Italian Front during the Great War. However, because so much is written about the Western Front, Gallipoli and even the Eastern Front, it is easy to forget this part of the war. Thompson, however, has brought together a book which seeks to redress this balance - and in my opinion it does so beautifully.
Unlike many dry history books, Thompson paints a picture of suffering, confusion and unbelievable bravery from a front which claimed millions of lives over the course of the War. Many of us know how the advent of technology brought about countless deaths on the Western Front, but countless more were lost on the Italian front due to the adherence to out of date tactics and ideas, and a futile attempt to gain land towards which many of the soliders fighting felt very little.
The book doesn't just provide names and dates. It also explores the politics, poetry and society which emerged out of the fray. It is easy to read, well researched and engaging without alienating the reader in any way. For a comprehensive understanding of an under represented period of history, you couldn't do much better.
on 19 April 2011
I visited the Vittorio Emmanuel monument in Rome a few years ago. The Italian tomb of the Unknown Soldier is part of the monument and there are displays on Italian military history. Italian participation in World War one was mentioned a lot and I realised I knew very little about this subject.
I did some research and this was one of the very few English language books on the subject. Thankfully Mark Thompson has written an excellent book.
The book is primarily about the origins and effects of the war in Italy rather than Austria.
Thompson goes into great detail on the state of Italian politics and diplomacy before the start of the war. This is very interesting, particularly how some politicians saw the "Risorgiemento" of the 19th century as unfinished business until certain territories could be reclaimed from Austria/Hungary as well as the dynamics of Italy's Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria.
Italy finally entered the war on the side of Britain, France and Russia in 1915, seeing an opportunity to gain territory from a weakened Austria. Thompson describes the usual initial enthusiasm for the war. Needless to say this soon waned, as breakthrough successes proved elusive. The war soon became a stalemate, with Austrians usually holding strong defensive positions.
Thompson strongly criticises the tactics and ability of the Italian military hierarchy under the command of Cadorna for any number of costly deficiencies and errors. Life for ordinary soldiers was as bad as on other fronts and this is described well. The casualty figures are frightening, especially considering the tiny territorial gains that were made, if any were made at all.
Thompson has not just written a military history of the war. Almost every second chapter looks in detail at a particular aspect of the war, such as profiles of Cadorna and "War poet" Gabriele D'Annunzio. There is a particularly detailed chapter on the poetry to emerge from the war. It seems to be a particular interest of the author.
The aftermath of the Italian "victory" is described, stretching up to the post World War II era, when a lot of the territory gained was lost. Thompson also examines the influence the war had on the emergence of Mussolini's dictatorship in the early 1920's.
This is an accessible, well-written book on a relatively little known aspect of World War I.
In the UK, were are taught about the First World War. We are taught about the trenches, the slaughter and the waste. Mostly, were are taught about the British and Commonwealth soldier's experience on the Western Front. 'The White War' teaches the English reader about what they are not taught - the Italian/Austrian front.
After declaring war on Austria-Hungary for dubious territorial reasons, Italy sent hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths on the rocks of Carso near Trieste. Men, indeed, who were most likely to be peasants from places such as Calabria in the south, who barely had the vaguest idea of 'Italy' or what they were ordered to fight for. Thomson details the grim experience and grimmer treatment of these men from their superiors. The Commander-in-Chief of the Italian Army, Luigi Cadorna, even practiced the Roman-era punishment of decimation for retreating or mutineering troops. Nor was Cadorna a particularly successful commander, often conceding vast losses for pointless gains soon lost. He was replaced, eventually, but too late to save the Italian effort.
Thompson shows that this war, though being triggered by that infamous shooting in Sarajevo, was propagandised as a continuation of the Risorgimento (the 19th Century unification of Italy), even though Italy had only a partial claim to Trieste, and very little to the majority-Germanophone South Tyrol.
The writer does all this well, and even the digressions into Italian war literature (no doubt inserted as a counterpoint to Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, 'Dulce et Decorum est' school) are fairly tolerable - though the well-aimed kicking given to D'Annunzio is amusing. Faint praise is not what this book deserves, however. It deserves to be read, and read especially by those whose sole exposure to WW1 history is the Western Front. They will learn something, even if it may be different to the lessons of Ypres and the Somme.
Although ostensibly written from an Italian perspective, the reader inevitably feels sympathy with the Habsburg armies. Few leaders on the Italian side emerge with any credit, and many of the key figures are downright evil. Italian troops--many of them illiterate peasants who had no idea what they were fighting for--were sacrificed in huge numbers to satisfy the blood-lust of Italy's intellectuals, generals and politicians. One can sympathise with the more conservative elements of Italian society that opposed the war: the Pope, the aristocracy and business leaders joined the workers in opposition to this madness. And Italian war aims were hypocritical--nearly all the areas they wanted to conquer were occupied by foreign people. Which is one reason why the Habsburg armies fought so effectively against them; ethnically, its soldiers were more representative of the areas they were defending. Their general, Boroevic, was a Slovene: like many of the Balkan races, the Slovenes regarded the Empire as their protector. German-speaking Austrians comprised a relatively small percentage of the soldiers fighting Italy. Boroevic, unlike the bone-headed Italian general Cadorna, deployed his forces rationally, and held the Italians to a virtual standstill despite being outnumbered by a ratio of 10 to 4.
However, the Habsburgs had to fight on many fronts, and their economy was backward. By 1917, they were hard-pressed to repel the human waves released by Cadorna--so Germany loaned them seven divisions for a daring counterattack at Caporetto. Edwin Rommel was a major, and with 200 men he captured a string of vital hills where Italian artillery was threatening the Austro-German attack. As Thompson emphasises, he was able to do this because command in the German forces was devolved to the lowest levels, and Rommel was able to exploit opportunities without referring back up the chain of command. Cadorna, by contrast, insisted that all decisions, right down to the lowest level, had to be endorsed by his staff. As a result, he lost his entire 2nd army, and Italian forces were driven back almost all the way to Venice.
Mark Thomson has written a brilliant history of a war, a popular history which doesn't patronise its readers. It's not really a military history: the maps are far too sketchy to satisfy a military historian. But it does put this forgotten conflict into an overall perspective of the times--especially the intellectual forces that created the perverse mentality responsible for this tragedy.
on 13 April 2009
I believe that this is the first English account of the war on the Italian/Austrian (1915-18)fronts of World War One? It's very readable, and wide-ranging: it covers everything from Italian history to a chapter on Italian War poetry (the latter a bit abstract for me, but that's no criticism of Thompson). The book avoids the painstaking detail of the numerous battles on the Isonzo (no trench maps here) that typifies some writing on military history, but it is clear that here are more (deliberately uninformed) lions led by donkeys; it could do with some more maps. There is a general map in the endpapers, and one or two others covering quite large areas of the front, and one of the Gorizia area, but if you are covering a dozen battles on the Isonzo, and a couple in the Tirol, most readers might need a bit more help? There's nothing on air or naval operations. The book gives an excellent account of how the origins and conduct of the Italy's war destroyed the legitimacy of her liberal institutions, and paved the way for the rise of fascism. Indeed, I would have liked a bit more on the immediate postwar period. There is an interesting Appendix on the nineteenth century reunifications, which might have been useful as a prologue, but that's probably nitpicking. Overall, a very good, groundbreaking book, good value at it's list price, and excellent value with its Amazon discount.
on 21 March 2011
For many, like myself, the Italian Front of the Great War was a forgotten front oft-omitted from academic studies and certainly not a prominent fixture in any student's learnings on the First World War. What Mark Thompson has achieved, then, is a commendable and thoroughly enjoyable study of this 'background' arena to the war.
It reads not only as a study of the conflict itself and rather encompasses a cultural and social overview of the impact of the war on Italy as a whole. In doing so, Thompson draws on Italy's status as a "new" state and he tackles all of the issues surrounding loyalty and nationalism which arise when fighting a war as a nation of vastly different people drawn together under the umbrella of 'Italy'. His insight into the irredentist cause is fascinating and brilliantly explained. His knowledge, and aptitude in delivering this knowledge, of combat and strategy is deep and immersive. His sources, as demonstrated by the vast bibliography, are drawn from all manner of studies and books and he has boiled-down these elements to fantastic effect.
What emerges then is a highly readable account of this conflict and the state of a nation with his prose urging you to turn the page time-and-time again. At times the book rouses into a fast-paced and excitable romp through conflicts, as per the pages on the numerous battles of the Isonzo, the disaster at Caporetto, or the Allied-assisted rout of the Asiago plateau and across the Tagliamento. Other times, the book slows to a lull as it focuses on the cultural background to the conflict, offering brilliant contempary accounts of the Italians' attitudes to the war.
Throughout, Thompson shines a light to some of the fascinating characters who shaped the war, from the understated Boroevic, the contemptible and hard-headed Cadorna, or the fiercly patriotic and violently nationalist D'Annunzio. This is underpinned by the emotional first-hand accounts of dozens of ordinary soldiers caught up in the bloodiest conflict known to man. All sides are accounted for with enticing glimpses into the forgotten minorities who fought valiantly - the Croats, Bosnians and Serbs - as well as the victors' voices and those of prominent Habsburg figures.
I would hastily recommend this book to anyone with even a fleeting interest in this arena of war. It does not read like an academic study though its sources and the author's knowledge certainly put weight behind the argument that it is such, but rather it is almost a fiction-esque account of ineptitude, bravery and obedience - all in equal measure. At times harrowing, though always honest, Thompson has delivered an incredibly astute window into the White War.
on 8 July 2009
A beautifully written and extremely important book. The Italian experience in the First World War is too often treated by British writers as marginal and even ridiculous - Thompson's book rescues the subject and is as good on the Austro-Hungarian army as on the Italians. It is strange to get away from reading about the mud-filled trenches that defined the British experience and swap them for the just-as-bad but different horrors of fighting in a landscape of rocks and ice. Undoubtedly often painful to read, but in making sense of the overwhelming feeling of bitterness and anger among Italians at the scarcely credible loss of life THE WHITE WAR also forms a valuable service in exposing the roots of Fascism.
on 21 December 2011
I was enthralled by this book. I had read many about the First World War, but never anything in detail about the Italian Front. I was amazed to discover that the Italians and the Austrians engaged in the same sort of trench warfare up in the North-East of what is now Italy, as the British, French and Germans did in France and Flanders; and this, despite the high altitude of many battlegrounds and the unyielding nature of much of the geology. The battles were given many names, but they were essentially all a battle for the Isonzo. The worst disaster suffered by the Italians was at Caporetto in 1917, when the Austrians were assisted by a small number of German divisions, who smashed their way through the Front, marched right round the Italian rear and rounded up several hundred thousand prisoners. A certain Colonel Rommel distinguished himself in the process.
The author describes the fighting very well; but he also explains how the War moulded the Italian people together for the first time, and why the Italians were so disappointd at Versailles. Some of the photographs are positively frightening.