The Magazine

Battle for Italy

The hard war in Europe's soft underbelly.

Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The White War

Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919

by Mark Thompson

Basic Books, 480 pp., $30

World War One

A Short History

by Norman Stone

Basic Books, 240 pp., $25

In May 1915 Margot Asquith, the British prime minister's wife, asked Admiral 'Jackie' Fisher, first lord of the admiralty, how things were going with the war: "As badly as they can," Fisher replied, "30,000 casualties in the Dardanelles. .  .  . I was always as you know against this mad expedition." Trying to say something positive, Asquith remarked on the recent entry of the Italians into the war on the side of Britain and France. "Mere organ grinders!" was the naval chief's response. "No use whatever."

Besides showing how blithely oblivious the subjects of George V were to political correctness, this exchange points up how the Italian role in World War I was denigrated from the outset. War historians compounded matters by tending to cede coverage of the subject to Ernest Hemingway, whose A Farewell to Arms (1929) takes place against the backdrop of the Battle of Caporetto. Now, in The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919, Mark Thompson, a young Cambridge historian, remedies this neglect with a study that is as pioneering as it is brilliant.

Drawing on an impressive array of British, Italian, and Austrian sources, including fascinating interviews with survivors, Thompson re-creates the Italo-Austrian conflict in all its facets, including the diplomatic haggling that preceded it, the character of the two armies, their commanders, the home front, the battles themselves, and the harsh mountainous conditions in which the armies fought.

When war broke out in 1914, Italy opted for neutrality. A titular ally of Germany and Austro-Hungary, she had just celebrated 50 years of unification and was still deeply divided. Many people living under Italian rule were illiterate peasants for whom the idea of going to war to recover putatively "Italian" lands under Austrian rule was meaningless. Irredentists, sustained by the cult of Garibaldi, had their hearts set on recovering Trento and Trieste. The Socialists initially resisted the capitalists' war, though they eventually joined with interventionists to take what they could of the territorial booty promised by the dismantling of the Habsburg empire.

When Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti urged his countrymen to sit out a fight for which they were unprepared, he was branded a defeatist and driven from power. His successor Antonio Salandra, together with the foreign minister Sidney Sonnino, pressed for intervention. The compliant King Victor Emanuel III sided with his ministers. Sonnino sounded London and Vienna to see which would offer most in the way of territorial incentives. The Austrians refused even to consider ceding territory; it would only encourage other nationalists to start making their own demands. Sonnino then turned to London and asked for control of the Adriatic, including the South Tyrol up to the Brenner Pass, Trieste, Gorizia, Dalmatia, Valona in Albania, and the Dodecanese Islands between Greece and Turkey.

H. H. Asquith, reeling from the Dardanelles fiasco, instructed his foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey to give Sonnino what he wanted: Italy must be brought in "at once, greedy and slippery as she is." Winston Churchill summed up the Entente's view of their new ally when he referred to Italy as "the harlot of Europe."

Besides territorial greed, what motivated the Italian interventionists was fear of borderland upstarts. As Thompson points out, "the Slovenes were powered by the unstoppable energy of youth. Many educated Italians worried that their own civilization was torpid and exhausted; in Trieste, this worry sharpened into paranoid fear. History's next winners would prove their strength by trampling on the has-beens."

Thompson provides rich portraits of the commanding officers of both armies. Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf was a charming, popular, intelligent man who recognized that Austria's chances of victory were negligible: "Our purpose," he wrote his Italian mistress, "will be only to go under honorably .  .  . like a sinking ship." As Thompson points out, "[von Hötzendorf] was under no illusion about Austria's ability to win on three fronts. .  .  . When the short, victorious campaign of his public predictions did not come to pass, he blamed the politicians for dragging the empire into war before it was ready."