The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915–1919 by Mark Thompson - review by Max Egremont

Max Egremont

Awaking the Demons

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915–1919


Faber & Faber 454pp £25

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.

The obvious reasons for going to war in May 1915 were the bribes of territory offered by the French and the British to detach Italy from her alliance with Austria–Hungary and Germany. Then there was nationalism. Not unified until 1870 (and even then not entirely so), Italy fought partly because

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