The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915–1919
By Mark Thompson. 454 pp. Basic Books, 2009 $35.00
“The First World War is a mystery,” writes historian John Keegan. “Why did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success…choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world” to the deadly uncertainties of war? As mystifying as anything is a largely forgotten front in World War I, along the mountainous border between Italy and Austria, now the subject of a memorable work by British historian Mark Thompson.
His focus is on Italy, rather than Austria. The Italians made many mistakes, the first when they abandoned neutrality to join France, Britain, and Russia after the Allies had promised Italy important territorial rewards, including the city of Trieste. Most Italians had little enthusiasm for war. But among those in Italy who agitated for plunging into the war were the poet-turned-politician Gabriele D’Annunzio and a socialist agitator, Benito Mussolini.
Italy’s confrontation with Austria was never more than a sideshow; the war was decided in France. Yet for the extreme conditions in which it was fought, Italy’s campaigns invite comparison with trench warfare in Belgium and France. The 375-mile Italian-Austrian frontier traverses the Alps, some of the most rugged snow-crested mountains of Europe, particularly the Tyrol region. Everywhere, Austria’s military commanded the high ground.
Italian troops were ill prepared for the conditions they faced. In Thompson’s words, “Lacking weapons, ordered to attack [over] intact barbed wire, struck down by typhoid and cholera, poorly clothed and fed, sleeping on wet hay or mud,” the men quickly began to realize that they were nothing but cannon fodder.
World War I produced many incompetent generals, but a remarkable number of these were Italian. The Italian commander, Luigi Cadorna, was a ruthless martinet who advanced his army in massed ranks, led from the front by junior officers brandishing swords, against entrenched positions where even when they were vastly outnumbered the Austrians waited in strong positions with machine guns and rifles. Cadorna repeated hopeless attacks and accepted heavy losses with resignation.
When the Italian advance stalled, Cadorna’s response was to purge the officer corps. By October 1917, Thompson writes, Cadorna had dismissed 217 generals, 255 colonels, and 355 battalion commanders. He ordered the officers of retreating units shot. Italians punished minor offenses by tying up the culprits and abandoning them in clear view of Austrian positions.
The Austrians, meanwhile, detected weakness in the Italian line. Although the armies were relatively equal in numbers, Cadorna had kept his front line heavily manned and his reserves some distance to the rear. Borrowing seven divisions from their German ally, the Austrians struck on October 24. Penetrating the Italian front and bypassing strongholds, the Austrians and Germans carried all before them. The Italian army disintegrated.
The Battle of Caporetto was perhaps the greatest debacle of World War I. The Italians lost 12,000 dead while the Austrians and Germans took some 294,000 prisoners. Cadorna was at long last sacked after this disaster, and the Italian military would never quite live down the disgrace at Caporetto.
Thompson’s style is marred by his occasional lapses into the present tense, but this is a small shortcoming in his riveting description of World War I’s forgotten front.
Originally published in the Autumn 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.