Italy was the opportunist in both world wars, entering them late, hoping to gain territory by backing the winner. In the First World War she found herself on the victorious side after horrendous losses: in the second, a loser, tainted by Fascism but on the brink of extraordinary transformation and economic progress.
No one who reads Mark Thompson’s account of the Italian front in the First World War can doubt the chaotic state of Italy in 1914. Still a multilingual nation, where many spoke in obscure dialects, she had a problem almost on the scale of her chief enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which issued its declaration of war in nine languages. The Austro-Hungarians coped better with this: their commander Conrad von Hötzendorf and his officers could make themselves understood to most of their troops, whereas the Italian Generalissimo Cadorna had no such gift. On the evidence of this book it seems doubtful that Cadorna had any gifts at all, apart from the ability to reach the top of the chaotic Italian army and a rare capacity for cruelty. His encouragement of the shooting of innocent men to instil terror in others makes chilling reading.