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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.

Published: Basic Books on
ISBN: 9780786744381
List price: $21.99
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This was a very well written book that told the singularly depressing story of the Italian campaign against Austria-Hungary in World War I. The title derives from the fact that many of the battles took place in the Southern Limestone Alps. During the winter the area was covered with snow and when the snow melted the men were fighting over mountains of white carbonate rock. The rock would splinter up in great chunks when hit by artillery shells causing many more casualties than artillery striking earth.This is one of the few books I have seen exclusively devoted to the Italian campaign. The author writes as thoroughly about the Italian political events as the battles. There are several references to how the war led to the rise of Italian fascism. Italy went to war in order to gain territory from Austria-Hungary. The Italian Irrendenta was a movement aimed at the unification of all ethnically Italian people. Prior to entering the war the Italians negotiated the Treaty of London guaranteeing them portions of Austria-Hungary populated by Italians for their assistance to the Allies.The author does a very good job of portraying what the war was like for the Italian foot soldiers who fought in conditions that were more than miserable. The Italian army had very poor equipment when they started the war. Their stocks of artillery and machine guns were the lowest of any major army in the war. The worst enemy of the Italian soldier was their Supreme Commander, Luigi Cadorna. Cadorna was more than a strict disciplinarian. In some cases he had groups who had failed in battle decimated. As the unit stood at attention one man out of ten was selected and shot. Cadorna forbade the practice of sending food packages to Italian soldiers who were captured. He refused to reward cowards. His favorite tactic was to group his men as tightly as possible and order them to charge straight ahead. On several occasions the Austria-Hungarians quit shooting and told the Italians to go back so no more would be killed. It was not war it was murder. Cadorna was finally fired in November of 1917 after a disastrous battle where 275,000 Italian soldiers surrendered.In 1918 Italy's allies provided them strategic materials and they were able to fashion the weapons and munitions needed by the army. Eventually Austria-Hungary succumbed to Italy's manpower advantage as their polyglot nation fell apart at the end of the war.It was a long book and it did drag on at times. The author seemed in full command of the source material and made excellent use of primary sources. If you want to learn about the Italian Campaign this is the book to read. You may want to ask how important it is to you before you make the commitment to read this book. This is not a history book for the general public.more
Wars are no different from other human enterprises; those who conduct it can run the gamut from brilliant (few, as in any enterprise) to the truly stupid and incompetent. The problem with any hierarchical organization is that the possibility of the incompetent being in charge of the lives of millions of other human beings is very real. History has shown us time and again that this is the case with armies, where the rise to command is as much based on political influence, chance of birth or other factors as well as merit.One of the most telling cases in point is the Italian participation in World War I, known as The White War because it was fought mainly in the mountains at very high altitudes; winters were bitter. Italy at that time was still digesting unification of the peninsula. Recently rid of Austria in the Veneto, Italy had territorial ambitions in Austrian south Tyrol and Adriatic. Playing one side against the other, Italy waited until it had favorable secret agreements from England and France before it entered the war, basically to win territory from Austria.The history of the conduct of the war, mainly by Carona, the head of the army, is one of incredible arrogance, egotism, incompetence, cunning, and total disregard for human life. Carona actually ordered ‘decimation”, the deliberate killing of one man in ten, for various acts that he termed treason; some such acts requiring brutal discipline, were lack of respect or speaking against the government.In addition, it wasn’t that Carona knew how to conduct a war--he didn’t. Entire armies were basically thrown away on frontal assaults against impregnable Austrian positions. Hemingway called it “the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery”.One of the results of the war was the rise to power of Mussolini, who traded on the losses and the one battle that the Italians did win--the last one--to gain his position as Italy’s dictator.Thompson tells the story in a very straightforward, very well-written manner. He not only covers the war, but also the politics of the time and the attitudes generated which have lasted in Italy to the present time. His explanations of the Yugoslavian independence movement and the different ethnic and religious groups within the Austro-Hungarian empire are excellent background to understanding the history of today’s Central Europe, at least those areas around the Adriatic.Highly recommended.more
During the Greek War of Independence, Western volunteers often wondered where the martial spirit of the Old Greeks had gone. These modern Greeks only shared Achilles' predilection to sulk and skulk. The same holds true for Italians. Always smartly dressed and spoiling for a fight, they managed to rack up one of the most dismal martial record of any nation. The First World War proved to be no exception: They lost the war but gained the peace, mostly by bad faith. Mark Thompson has written a good account of this sorry war that unnecessarily cost so much Italian blood and mostly ill-gotten gains,The wounds this war inflicted remain: Only since 2007 can one cross freely across the internal Schengen border from Slovenia into Italy at Gorizia/Nova Gorica. During my short stop during the early Nineties, the transfer between the two train stations and the border crossings still had a Cold War flair (marred by the fact that the Italians failed to man the designated Third Party National border station, so that anyone could simply walk into Italy unchecked). Gorizia had been the focal point of the Isonzo battles and also Thompson's book whose title is highly misleading. In the Tyrolean parts, "The White War" might be a justified title. The mass of both armies, however, met on and around Gorizia (85 meters above the sea) and its surrounding hills of 400 to 600 meters. It was not the cold and the snow that made war difficult. The rocky terrain, especially the Karst responsible for the region's famous mountain caves, was the true culprit of the atrocious conditions.The blockheaded Italian leadership, which might have achieved most of their war goals without actually having to fight (namely the return of the Italian-speaking territories but not he Slavic or Germanic ones), Unprepared, ill-equipped, unsupported and badly led, the Italian soldiers were sent against uphill Austrian defensive positions. In contrast to the Russian and Serbian front, the Habsburgs could rely on local troops to defend their home territory. In and around Gorizia, the local population were Slovenes who did not want to be liberated and integrated into Italy. The Slovene and Bosnian troops fought well. Time and again, they repelled the Italian attacks. The downfall of the Austrians came after their greatest victory in the Twelfth Isonzo battle (featuring an outstanding young Erwin Rommel, a well told vignette in the book). Descended from their hill defenses, the Austrians opened up their troops to a war of attrition at a unsustainable rate to the Austrians. When the war ended, the Italians managed to gobble up territories they couldn't reach by military means. The account of these unfair gains is probably the best and infuriating part of the book.Overall, it is a readable and competent account of the Italian efforts during the First World War. Curiously, the book includes Gabriele d'Annunzio's joyride aerial leaflet bombardment of Vienna only as a footnote. The concentration on the twelve Isonzo battles minimizes the Tyrolean theater which looms large in Austrian historiography. Thus, this is a worthy introduction to a WWI campaign often forgotten in English-speaking countries (despite Hemingway!). Ideally, it should be complemented with an account of the Austrian actions.more
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Reviews

This was a very well written book that told the singularly depressing story of the Italian campaign against Austria-Hungary in World War I. The title derives from the fact that many of the battles took place in the Southern Limestone Alps. During the winter the area was covered with snow and when the snow melted the men were fighting over mountains of white carbonate rock. The rock would splinter up in great chunks when hit by artillery shells causing many more casualties than artillery striking earth.This is one of the few books I have seen exclusively devoted to the Italian campaign. The author writes as thoroughly about the Italian political events as the battles. There are several references to how the war led to the rise of Italian fascism. Italy went to war in order to gain territory from Austria-Hungary. The Italian Irrendenta was a movement aimed at the unification of all ethnically Italian people. Prior to entering the war the Italians negotiated the Treaty of London guaranteeing them portions of Austria-Hungary populated by Italians for their assistance to the Allies.The author does a very good job of portraying what the war was like for the Italian foot soldiers who fought in conditions that were more than miserable. The Italian army had very poor equipment when they started the war. Their stocks of artillery and machine guns were the lowest of any major army in the war. The worst enemy of the Italian soldier was their Supreme Commander, Luigi Cadorna. Cadorna was more than a strict disciplinarian. In some cases he had groups who had failed in battle decimated. As the unit stood at attention one man out of ten was selected and shot. Cadorna forbade the practice of sending food packages to Italian soldiers who were captured. He refused to reward cowards. His favorite tactic was to group his men as tightly as possible and order them to charge straight ahead. On several occasions the Austria-Hungarians quit shooting and told the Italians to go back so no more would be killed. It was not war it was murder. Cadorna was finally fired in November of 1917 after a disastrous battle where 275,000 Italian soldiers surrendered.In 1918 Italy's allies provided them strategic materials and they were able to fashion the weapons and munitions needed by the army. Eventually Austria-Hungary succumbed to Italy's manpower advantage as their polyglot nation fell apart at the end of the war.It was a long book and it did drag on at times. The author seemed in full command of the source material and made excellent use of primary sources. If you want to learn about the Italian Campaign this is the book to read. You may want to ask how important it is to you before you make the commitment to read this book. This is not a history book for the general public.more
Wars are no different from other human enterprises; those who conduct it can run the gamut from brilliant (few, as in any enterprise) to the truly stupid and incompetent. The problem with any hierarchical organization is that the possibility of the incompetent being in charge of the lives of millions of other human beings is very real. History has shown us time and again that this is the case with armies, where the rise to command is as much based on political influence, chance of birth or other factors as well as merit.One of the most telling cases in point is the Italian participation in World War I, known as The White War because it was fought mainly in the mountains at very high altitudes; winters were bitter. Italy at that time was still digesting unification of the peninsula. Recently rid of Austria in the Veneto, Italy had territorial ambitions in Austrian south Tyrol and Adriatic. Playing one side against the other, Italy waited until it had favorable secret agreements from England and France before it entered the war, basically to win territory from Austria.The history of the conduct of the war, mainly by Carona, the head of the army, is one of incredible arrogance, egotism, incompetence, cunning, and total disregard for human life. Carona actually ordered ‘decimation”, the deliberate killing of one man in ten, for various acts that he termed treason; some such acts requiring brutal discipline, were lack of respect or speaking against the government.In addition, it wasn’t that Carona knew how to conduct a war--he didn’t. Entire armies were basically thrown away on frontal assaults against impregnable Austrian positions. Hemingway called it “the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery”.One of the results of the war was the rise to power of Mussolini, who traded on the losses and the one battle that the Italians did win--the last one--to gain his position as Italy’s dictator.Thompson tells the story in a very straightforward, very well-written manner. He not only covers the war, but also the politics of the time and the attitudes generated which have lasted in Italy to the present time. His explanations of the Yugoslavian independence movement and the different ethnic and religious groups within the Austro-Hungarian empire are excellent background to understanding the history of today’s Central Europe, at least those areas around the Adriatic.Highly recommended.more
During the Greek War of Independence, Western volunteers often wondered where the martial spirit of the Old Greeks had gone. These modern Greeks only shared Achilles' predilection to sulk and skulk. The same holds true for Italians. Always smartly dressed and spoiling for a fight, they managed to rack up one of the most dismal martial record of any nation. The First World War proved to be no exception: They lost the war but gained the peace, mostly by bad faith. Mark Thompson has written a good account of this sorry war that unnecessarily cost so much Italian blood and mostly ill-gotten gains,The wounds this war inflicted remain: Only since 2007 can one cross freely across the internal Schengen border from Slovenia into Italy at Gorizia/Nova Gorica. During my short stop during the early Nineties, the transfer between the two train stations and the border crossings still had a Cold War flair (marred by the fact that the Italians failed to man the designated Third Party National border station, so that anyone could simply walk into Italy unchecked). Gorizia had been the focal point of the Isonzo battles and also Thompson's book whose title is highly misleading. In the Tyrolean parts, "The White War" might be a justified title. The mass of both armies, however, met on and around Gorizia (85 meters above the sea) and its surrounding hills of 400 to 600 meters. It was not the cold and the snow that made war difficult. The rocky terrain, especially the Karst responsible for the region's famous mountain caves, was the true culprit of the atrocious conditions.The blockheaded Italian leadership, which might have achieved most of their war goals without actually having to fight (namely the return of the Italian-speaking territories but not he Slavic or Germanic ones), Unprepared, ill-equipped, unsupported and badly led, the Italian soldiers were sent against uphill Austrian defensive positions. In contrast to the Russian and Serbian front, the Habsburgs could rely on local troops to defend their home territory. In and around Gorizia, the local population were Slovenes who did not want to be liberated and integrated into Italy. The Slovene and Bosnian troops fought well. Time and again, they repelled the Italian attacks. The downfall of the Austrians came after their greatest victory in the Twelfth Isonzo battle (featuring an outstanding young Erwin Rommel, a well told vignette in the book). Descended from their hill defenses, the Austrians opened up their troops to a war of attrition at a unsustainable rate to the Austrians. When the war ended, the Italians managed to gobble up territories they couldn't reach by military means. The account of these unfair gains is probably the best and infuriating part of the book.Overall, it is a readable and competent account of the Italian efforts during the First World War. Curiously, the book includes Gabriele d'Annunzio's joyride aerial leaflet bombardment of Vienna only as a footnote. The concentration on the twelve Isonzo battles minimizes the Tyrolean theater which looms large in Austrian historiography. Thus, this is a worthy introduction to a WWI campaign often forgotten in English-speaking countries (despite Hemingway!). Ideally, it should be complemented with an account of the Austrian actions.more
It's very easy to criticise the tactics and the generals in World War I but the leaders in the Italian High Command far exceed those on other fronts. All commanders in that war can with some justification be accused of showing no concern for the soliders but Cadorna and others took this to an extreme - victory could be won by the will of soldiers laying down their lives. Sacrifice and glory would lead to victory.Gabriele D'Annunzio comes across as a particularly odious character.Highly recommendedmore
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