BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
THE WHITE WAR: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, by Mark Thompson,
, February 7, 2009
The forgotten frontTHE WHITE WAR:
Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919
by Mark Thompson,
(London: Faber and Faber, 2008)
Hardcover: 464 pages
Rec. price: AUD$59.95Almost 90 years after the end of World War I, the Italian theatre of war is largely forgotten, perhaps because it was considered by the Western Allies to be a sideshow, but also perhaps because of the dubious agreements the Allies entered into with Italy to secure her involvement in the war.
Although Italy since 1882 had been part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, at the start of the war she chose to remain neutral, arguing that the alliance was essentially defensive in nature and that Austria-Hungary's actions had been aggressive.Secret treaty
Italy's politicians soon realised that they had more to gain by entering the war on the Allied side. Under the terms of the secretly negotiated Treaty of London (1915), Italy agreed to do so and, in return, was promised the territories of Trentino, Istria and Dalmatia and the port city of Trieste in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, places where the majority of residents were of non-Italian background.
The Allies, locked in stalemates on the Western Front and suffering setbacks on the Eastern Front, were eager to secure another ally which could open up another front in order to draw troops, particularly those of Austria-Hungary, away from the Eastern Front.
The government and nationalistic elements of Italian society had been dissatisfied with previous land acquisitions during their country's process of unification in the 19th century, particularly in the Third War of Independence of 1866. They saw Italy's involvement in the Great War as the fourth war of independence. Some middle-class nationalists eagerly volunteered to fight; but the Italian army, for the most part, was composed of conscripts, who endured miserable conditions and high casualty rates.
Mark Thompson describes Italy's performance in the war as significantly worse than that of Britain and France.
Much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the commander-in-chief of the Italian army, Luigi Cadorna.
Dreams of quick and decisive victories were soon shattered after attempts were made to use tactics, such as frontal assaults, that by May 1915 had proven unsuccessful for trench warfare.
The Austro-Hungarian army was stretched, both in terms of men and resources such as artillery pieces, in fighting what was largely a defensive war. However, it generally used the difficult mountainous terrain to its advantage, by building well-constructed networks of defensive trenches in strategically favourable spots.
Although Italy was able to commit more troops than Austria-Hungary, it was not until 1918, when her opponent was flagging, that she was finally able to achieve significant breakthroughs. It is possible that had the Austro-Hungarian army possessed more men and resources, it could have knocked Italy out of the war.
As previously mentioned, the Italian troops suffered greatly. They were poorly trained and equipped, and rations were often inadequate. Any signs of weakness or hesitancy in the face of certain death were met with the severest of punishments.
Units which failed to achieve unrealistic objectives were literally decimated. In some instances, machine-guns were mounted at the rear of Italian trenches and Italian troops who retreated or were too slow in attacking were shot.
Civilians came under tough strictures too. The so-called Sacchi decree of 1917 punished with lengthy jail terms anyone who suggested, even in passing, that Italy might lose the war.
Given the inferior battle tactics and generally low morale of troops, it is little wonder that numerous offensives were attempted and failed over the same territory. For example, whilst there were three battles for Ypres on the Western Front, there were 12 battles for the Isonzo river on the Italian front!
It was only in October 1917, after which Russia was essentially out of the war, that the Austro-Hungarian army, spearheaded by their German allies, was able to advance rapidly on the Italian front, covering 100 kilometres in a matter of days. One of the company commanders on whom Thompson focuses on in this campaign was Erwin Rommel, the future famous German general of World War II, whose unit achieved some of the most significant gains. Thompson argues that Rommel demonstrated his outstanding strategic and leadership abilities during this campaign and engaged in a prototype of the blitzkrieg style of warfare.
After the near collapse of the Italian Army, Cadorna was replaced by Armando Diaz, who immediately sought to improve conditions for soldiers. With the support of British divisions, the Italian front line was stabilised. However, it was not until the second half of 1918 that the Italians were able to advance again, the most significant gains being made in the two weeks before the armistice with Austria-Hungary on November 4, 1918.
By this stage, the Austro-Hungarian army was essentially no longer intent on fighting, particularly as many of its troops saw themselves as loyal, no longer to the defeated Habsburg empire, but instead to the new states that were emerging, such as Czechoslovakia. Towards the end of the conflict, Italian politicians were adamant that Italian troops should seize as much territory as possible, and consolidate their claims, based on the Treaty of London, at the post-war peace conferences.
Whereas France and Britain were able to convince themselves that they had some altruistic motives in fighting — such as the defence of neutral Belgium — Italy had blatantly entered the conflict for territorial gain. Her subsequent failure to gain all that she had been promised, particularly along the Adriatic coastline, made her particularly aggrieved with the provisions of the postwar peace settlement.
As a result, the Italian public's faith in their country's liberal democratic system was largely shattered, a disillusionment which paved the way for Mussolini and the Fascists' rise to power. Paradoxically, some of the territories ceded to Italy at the end of World War I were ceded to Yugoslavia after World War II.
Thompson's valuable monograph on Italy's forgotten front fills a gaping vacuum in studies of campaigns of World War I, particularly for English readers, even though at times this otherwise interesting study becomes "bogged down" in describing the details of certain battles.