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."

Luigi Cadorna was a myopic careerist who had entered military school in Turin at the age of 10. His ascent was swift: captain in 1880, major in 1883, colonel in 1892, major general in 1898, lieutenant general in 1905, and chief of Italy's general staff in 1908. When the king stepped aside and urged him to become supreme commander in 1915, Cadorna insisted on (and was given) absolute power. There would be none of the rivalries that bedeviled Garibaldi in 1866; Cadorna's ruthlessly unimaginative approach to war met with no opposition.

Of course, in the Great War, strategic obtuseness was not exactly uncommon. On the Western Front, after the French suffered 143,567 casualties at Loos (1915), Marshal Joffre resolved to intensify the fight: "We shall kill more of the enemy than he can kill of us."

Thus was born attrition, "that last resort of paralyzed strategy," as the poet Charles Hamilton Sorley put it, who was himself killed at Loos. Toleration for huge casualties became a staple of the war, and the Battle of Verdun was attrition personified, killing 700,000 men along a front of 15 miles. "The folly, the waste, and the stupendous courage of the men who fought at Verdun seem to belong to an age a thousand years removed from our own," writes the historian Alistair Horne.

The same could be said about the staggering attrition suffered by the Italians in the battles of the Isonzo (11 in all, and all of them defeats) along the 400-mile mountainous front, which the Austrians carefully fortified before the Italians entered the war. The Italians lost 300,000 men in these futile engagements, which followed an invariable pattern: The Italians attacked and the Austrians mowed them down from higher, defensive positions. At times, the carnage became so revolting that the Austrians urged the Italians to desist: "Italians! Go back! We don't want to massacre you," survivors recalled the Austrians calling out.

Thompson writes, "If there is any proof that such scenes played out on other fronts I have not found it." They attest to the unique odds against which the Italians fought-which were made worse by the singularly unforgiving mountainous terrain of the mostly static battlefields. Lack of camouflage, snow-blindness, and avalanches were persistent killers; and on December 13, 1916, which became known as "White Friday," 10,000 soldiers were killed in avalanches.

John Keegan has put the campaign leading up to Caporetto-when the Austrians finally went on the offensive and routed the Italians-in dispassionate perspective:

In the circumstances it was highly creditable that the Italian army had persisted in eleven costly and fruitless assaults on Austria's mountain borderland. The incidence of an offensive every three months, between May 1915 and August 1917, was higher than that demanded of the British and French armies on the Western Front .  .  . shellfire on the rocky terrain caused 70 percent more casualties per round expended than on the soft ground in France and Belgium.

Moreover, the discipline meted out to the Italians was savage. After each defeat, Cadorna practiced the old Roman policy of decimation, randomly picking men from the ranks and executing them in a mad attempt to deter slackers. As Keegan writes, "It is unlikely that the British or Germans would have stood for such 'normal persuasion' and it is a tribute to Italy's sorely tried and dumbly uncomplaining peasant infantrymen that they did."

The statistics of Caporetto speak for themselves: The Italians lost 12,000 dead with 30,000 wounded; 294,000 were taken prisoner and 350,000 deserted. Only half of the army's 65 divisions survived the rout intact, and half the artillery was lost, including 300,000 guns, 300,000 rifles, and 3,000 machine guns, as well as 1,600 motor vehicles.

Caporetto was an unmitigated disaster. Indeed, as Thompson points out, "The prime fear of dissolution" to which the defeat gave rise

survives in metaphor. Corruption scandals are still branded "a moral Caporetto." Politicians accuse each other of facing an "electoral Caporetto." .  .  . This figure of speech stands for more than simple defeat; it involves a hint of stomach-churning exposure-rottenness laid bare.

What is remarkable, however, is that even after this shattering collapse, the Italians emerged victorious. In all the annals of war there have been few reversals of fortune more phoenix-like than the Italian victory at Vittorio Veneto. In November 1918 Armando Diaz, a modest, humane, cautious man with strong administrative skills, succeeded Cadorna and, with the help of the British 48th Division under Lord Cavan, directed the advance of his armies over the Austrian border as far as the Tagliamento River. The spoils of victory were immense: Italy appropriated Trieste, the South Tyrol, Tarvisio, the Isonzo Valley, Gorizia, Istria, western Carniola, and Dalmatia-most of which, however, the Treaty of Versailles would revoke, thus opening the door to Mussolini's belligerent nationalism.

Outmanned and outgunned, the Austrians lost the Habsburg empire's last battle. Thirty thousand Austrian soldiers were killed and 300,000 to 500,000 were taken prisoner. Thompson quotes one Austrian referring to the retreat as weirdly calm: A "semblance of order" was "maintained by sheer force of habit, a march into nothingness."

The legacy of the Italian experience in the First World War continues to resonate. If some see the war as completing the Risorgimento, others see it as confirming the Italian hostility to statism. It also confirmed Italians' ingrained cynicism, the flip side of their vainglory. In this respect, the most perceptive commentator remains Hemingway, who has his hero in
A Farewell to Arms confide: "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice. .  .  . I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory. .  .  . There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity."

If The White War is the work of a bright young historian proving his mettle, Norman Stone's World War One is that of an established historian resting on his oars. Readers familiar with Stone's previous work will not be surprised by the excessive attention he pays to the Eastern Front. Still, for readers unfamiliar with the war, and even for Stone aficionados, much of what he writes in this glib conspectus will be of dubious use in helping them to understand why and how the war was fought. Like A. J. P. Taylor before him, Stone includes much here about railway timetables; he even writes Taylor-like paeans to the glamour of German power, citing Caporetto and the March 1918 offensive against the British as "displays of panache of which the plodders on the Allied side were utterly incapable." And yet Stone omits to explain why the plodders won the war, or indeed why they fought it in the first place.

Hew Strachan's one-volume overview is far superior.

Edward Short is a writer in New York.