In May 1915, Italy declared war on the Habsburg Empire. Nearly 750,000 Italian troops were killed in savage, hopeless fighting on the stony hills north of Trieste and in the snows of the Dolomites. To maintain discipline, General Luigi Cadorna restored the Roman practice of decimation, executing random members of units that retreated or rebelled.
With elegance and pathos, historian Mark Thompson relates the saga of the Italian front, the nationalist frenzy and political intrigues that preceded the conflict, and the towering personalities of the statesmen, generals, and writers drawn into the heart of the chaos. A work of epic scale, The White War does full justice to the brutal and heart-wrenching war that inspired Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.
Independent scholar Thompson (Forging War) is familiar with a burgeoning Italian literature on the Great War's military aspects. He utilizes that material to construct and convey, better than any English-language account, the essence of three years of desperate struggle for the Isonzo River sector in northeastern Italy. Thompson distinguishes elegantly among the 12 battles for this nearly impassable ground, although the book is best understood as an extended essay on the causes, nature and purpose of Italy's involvement. Thompson presents Italy's war as a test of the vitalist spirit (best expressed in futurism) to demonstrate that the country was more than a middle-class illusion. In consequence, Thompson shows, strategic, diplomatic and political vacuums were too often filled with leaders' rhetoric and mythology. Too many generals, like Luigi Cadorna and Luigi Capello, were case studies in arrogant incompetence. In that environment, the less ordinary soldiers knew about causes and purposes, the better. When they failed in their mission, the draconian responses included summary execution. Prisoners of war were treated as cowards. The war, says Thompson, stands as Italy's first "collective national experience" and illustrates the poisonous nature of European nationalism. Photos, maps.