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on 22 February 2015
This excellent comprehensive history of the Italian Front from 1915 to 1919 in the First World War covers not only the campaign itself but much background detail as well. The book follows a strict chronological narrative for the actual campaign but devotes intermediate sections to other aspects of Italian history including the background and causes of the war, the personalities of the key leaders, the geography of the area and the distinctive role played by Italian Futurist artists and the unique war poetry that emerged from the battles. Also included at the end of the book is an important appendix on the Third War of Italian Independence, 1866, that perhaps would have been better placed at the beginning.
The author, Mark Thompson, has clearly carried out copious research of secondary, mainly Italian, sources to construct this impressive book. Thompson shows that the very vocal Irredentists (those who wanted to ‘redeem’ lands to Italy) wanted to ‘complete’ the unification of Italy as they saw it by capturing Austrian territory all the way to the Alps, the city of Trieste, and lands in Dalmatia and even parts of Albania to convert the Adriatic into an Italian Sea. The fact that the overwhelming number of inhabitants of these areas were not Italian was no impediment to the Irredentist polemic. Thompson shows that these views were held by a small educated ruling clique at the top of Italian society and supported by the Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and his successor Vittorio Orlando, Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino and the disaster prone head of the army General Raffaele Cadorna as well as hotheads such as Gabriele D’Annunzio and Mussolini. These aggressive views formed no part of the thinking of the vast bulk of the Italian population for whom the concept of a unified Italy was still a novelty. As a result most of those drafted into the armed forces had no idea why they were at war.
The author provides excellent passages describing the arid rock strewn lands of the Carso, scene of the repetitive battles of the campaign, and the mountainous and seemingly impossible fighting terrain of the Trento. It was nevertheless over this unpromising countryside that the courageous Italian soldiers were thrown at well armed Austro-Hungarian Empire troops by that most inept of generals, Cadorna, who seemingly felt that a great blood sacrifice was a necessary precursor to the final appropriate ‘redemption’ of the country. Cadorna was the only military leader in modern times to have recourse to the Roman practice of ‘decimation’ to enforce discipline.
This is not a ‘battle’ book and the author does not burden the reader with maps of manoeuvre or detailed divisional movement but describes the general sweep of conflict. That being said one or two extra maps would have been welcome as those provided as endpapers lacked many of the place names mentioned in the text.
The author revisits the Italian and Austro-Hungarian headquarters, and keeps us abreast of the crucial role played by the conduct of the war on the Russian Front, and surprisingly for me, the role of British and French commanders who actually sent troops and guns to Italy at key stages of the campaign. The brief intervention of German troops (who were not at war with Italy) and the swashbuckling performance of Erwin Rommel in the early stages of the monumental Italian defeat of Caporetto also make fascinating reading. I was also surprised by the ability of Italian industry to quickly ramp up during the war from very small beginnings to produce prodigious numbers of weapons, equipment and aircraft thereby laying the foundation for the future Italian industrial base. The Austro-Hungarian Empire by comparison remained moribund and never made such progress, relying solely upon the quality of its troops, and thereby guaranteeing eventual defeat.
As mentioned earlier, this is an all encompassing book that touches on many aspects of the war, its associated politics and the aftermath. The author convincingly shows how the betrayal of the troops by the government and the foolish and unsuccessful claims for territory made at the peace negotiations sowed the seeds for the future collapse of Italian democracy and the rise of Fascism.
This is an excellent product of extensive research but two minor criticisms are perhaps warranted, the absence of a couple of appropriate maps as described above, and the fact that at times the book is really quite dense and heavy to read although perseverance does pay good dividends.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 November 2014
Often when reading about a subject that you have little previous knowledge of, books can be very hard going because the author often assumes that readers do have a reasonable amount of previous knowledge. This book is very accessible from the respect that you can pick it up without knowing anything of Italy's involvement in the First World War (or Great War if you prefer) and you won't need to do a lot of, if any, background reading to make sense of references within the book. The Italian Front is perhaps a little known aspect of the war because of the vast amount written about the Western Front, and to a lesser extent the Gallipoli Campaign. I found this book a great way to fill this gap in my knowledge and is certainly one of the best I have read on any period of history.

Mark Thompson builds up the story to Italy's declaration of war by considering Italy's national history, a country which was still trying to forge its national identity after unification in the second half of the 19th century. Irredentism is prominent within much of Italian society, with a particular desire to see Trieste, Trento and South Tyrol become part of Italy. The book is not just a bland chronicle of events, but also considers the cultural, literary, social and political aspects of Italy's entry into the First World War, with particular reference to Gabriele D'Annunzio. The story of the war reveals a particularly brutal conflict on this front, even by the standards of the rest of the war. Italian tactics and Army Chief of Staff Luigi Cadorna's brutal treatment of the soldiers are covered in detail, and explain why after eleven Battles of the Isonzo, the twelfth (Caporetto) resulted in such a dramatic Italian collapse. There are valuable first-hand accounts from some of the handful of remaining Italian veterans that were alive when the book was written. King Victor Emmanuel III's prominent part in the story is well referenced, as is the aftermath of the war and the consequences leading to the rise of Mussolini.

I think this book is very well balanced, giving a great introduction to the subject. It is very much written from an Italian point of view, so if you're looking for a more detailed perspective from Austria-Hungary, further reading would be required.
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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.
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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.
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VINE VOICEon 7 January 2010
Not much that I can add to the positive comments made above. This really is how good narrative history SHOULD be written. Mark Thompson is an author who knows how to combine both the big picture political and strategic developments with interesting and informative eye-witness accounts from the front line. I read a great deal of military history books and I'd really like to read more like this please.

Critics of Haig and British generalship during WW1 should read this to understand why that view is so very misleading when compared to the real military incompetence set out here in its full horror . Readers are left with a very clear understanding of why Mussolini and the Fascists were able to seize power in 1922 on the back of the outcome of this campaign.

Only one minor criticism, and not enough to lose a star, is the lack of good maps. A series of more detailed maps would aid the reader in placing events. Otherwise, high recommended.
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on 3 May 2012
This is a really good book about a part of WW1 that isn't know too much about in the UK, particularly as there are chapters on the "futurists", the press coverage and also Italian poetry of the conflict, but as like a couple of other reviewers note, it suffers from not having really decent maps. As one of the probably many people that aren't all that familiar with the geography, I kept going back to the "maps" in the book to pick out the actual areas being described being fought over, which I found a little irritating. Also, the appendix, describing the relations between Italy and Austria in the mid to late 19th century, whilst interesting, surely has no place here? There are already two chapters at the beginning of the book doing more or less the same.

That's only a little quibble though as otherwise I enjoyed this book very much and would recommend it to any serious student of the First World War.
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on 27 September 2016
I think I'm spoiled by Beevor and Hastings. A good book with loads of interesting and little known historical facts of the Italian front. Just thought it rambled on with pointless asides a little too much. Glad I read it though
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on 10 September 2016
Wonderful account of a forgotten theatre of the Great War. Italy's part in this conflict is largely ignored in the histories, but the sacrifices of her people, and those of her adversaries, are worthy of acknowledgement.

This book is widely regarded as being an essential text on the topic, read it and you will see why.
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on 25 April 2014
After a number of holidays in northern Italy and western Slovenia, and having happened upon some of the trench networks of the First War I was intrigued enough to want to know something about what is often called a forgotten war.

The book is a bit academic and there is a real need to have a decent map to hand in order to provide orientation and context to the story; the maps printed in the book are hopeless. Furthermore it is, in my opinion, indefensible to publish such a book with so few pictures; it would have not been too difficult to have included some photographs of the areas [mentioned in the book] as they are today. Is that me being asking too much or is the author just being lazy?

However it was a fascinating book, despite not being as accessible as it could have been, I have no regrets with my purchase and I am definitely better for having read it.
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on 15 March 2014
The little one knows of the Italian-Austrian campaign of 1915-1918 is its setting for 'A farewell to arms'. But the story of this war is much grimmer and more nuanced than Hemingway's. Italy's conduct was marked by bombast, treachery, and incompetence, with Cadorna, the Italian commander a monster of cruelty and arrogance. Italy shot more of its own soldiers for 'cowardice' than any other nation, many without even the semblance of a trial. Time and time again, Italian troops were sent forward in waves against strong Austrian positions, only to be slaughtered. It even came to the point that the Austrians were telling the Italians to go back in order to avoid being killed. Conditions were appalling, the men were starving - and all for the battle-cry of 'Trento and Trieste'. The irony was that the territories the Italians finally 'liberated' at such huge cost were largely inhabited by ethnic Slavs, who greatly preferred life under the Hapsburgs!
The effects of this disastrous campaign were far-reaching, leading first to Mussolini's Fascism and then to Italy's
Equally disastrous performance in WWII, which resulted in the loss of the territories gained in WWII. A fascinating story, well told by Thompson. Enthrall ing and compelling.
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