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A Comprehensive History of All Aspects of the WWI Italian Campaign
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.