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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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.