I have just finished reading “The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919" by Mark Thompson which is a study of a 1st World War front that is often forgotten but where Italy lost 689, 000 solders( Britain lost 662,000 + 140, 000 reported as missing). That we tend to associate the infantry war with the plains of Flanders and Russia reveals the common myth as this part of the struggle was mountain warfare albeit also with trenches.
The conduct of the war exposed the weak hold of liberal structures and politics on the Italian population and the defeat of victory quickly let in 20 years of fascist government. The collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and take over the successor national states by the communists has made it difficult to get a sense of what really went on: Italians and other non Germanic nationals did fight for the Emperor, many of the feature of Fascism (a puppet parliament, a muzzled press, a romantic nationalism, a militarised state) had their roots on the political conduct of the war.
What made the book an interesting read is that Mark Thomas does more then hold to the historical arc of the events from the turmoil in Italy leading to its ripping up of a long standing agreement to be allied with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary ( It took on a secret 30 pieces of silver territorial deal with the Allies). And ending with the desperate mad dash to occupy land vacated by the collapsing Hapsburg armies-it made the most of the cock-up where as the armistice agreement ended the war one day earlier for Austria-Hungary. What he does is switch the narrative in cinematographic terms from wide/long shots, medium to close-ups as the narrative unfolds. So we take the long view at the ideas affecting Italian practice in politics, art and military such as Romantic Vitalism or the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. Or the impact of how Italian unification actually unfolded. We then have medium shot accounts of how individual battles unfolded from both of the combatant’s perspectives or the power struggles and conduct at military and political levels. And finally the close-up accounts of artists, reporters, and survivors that expose the official accounts or help to explain the mindset of the elites.
It was this rounded and varied explanation that held my attention, as I tended to wander in the step by step of accounts of the battles(my attention span rather then the quality of the writing, although these are necessary to understand the appalling and arrogant way that the soldiers were used. For example, Military discipline justified the ancient Roman practice of randomly killing 1 in 10 solders if the platoon had infringed any rules which could be just turning up late from leave. The fact, with no interest shown in the reason was enough for summary execution. This is because the Italian army leadership took the most extreme view of all the armed forces in the 1st world war that the solders were only cannon fodder to do the will of the supreme commander. An attitude they paid for when Austria-Hungarian forces with direct support of Germany developed a forerunner of Blitzkrieg and took back all the territory fought over in the past three years and swept down to the pre 1866 national boundaries.
The resource imbalance between the foes and the deteriorating political realties for the Central Powers meant that this could not be turned into a knock-out blow. But with Russia out and embroiled in Revolution and no significant Allied victories, the collapse of the Central Powers as Germany struggled to avoid the fate of Austria- Hungary created the German Nazis myth of a stab in the back. It also confirmed the lack of democratic populist support for liberalism.
So why should you read this book? Well it gives you a clear account of one part of the wider First World War front that is only now becoming clear and even possible to study. (Attempts to clear the names of those summarily executed is still politically sensitive in Italy.) But a more important reason is that it offers insights into the conduct of events now. If History has anything to teach, its that we the ordinary people wont get a true picture what our masters have been doing in our name until we are pushing up the daisies.. In knowing what was going on behind closed doors then, we can question what the media, cultural elites, military strategists, politicians are doing now. But of course if you think we have the straight line on the War on Terror, or the credit crunch then give it a miss.