A Farewell to Arms

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Scherl/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo/The Image Works
Italian riflemen leaving their trenches to attack the Austro-Hungarians during World War I; from Mark Thompson’s The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915–1919

Many Anglo-Saxons perceive Italy’s role in modern history as marginal and verging upon absurdity. Few American or British people contrived to hate Mussolini and his nation in World War II as they hated Hitler and his, because they did not fear Italians in the same way. There were those ponderous jokes that pleased stupid men with large mustaches in English pubs in the 1950s, about Italian tanks lavishly equipped with reverse gears. In June 1915, a Slovene child in the Hapsburg Alpine village of Caporetto, which had just been occupied by the Italians, contributed something to the same legend by exclaiming as he saw Bersaglieri troops cycling toward him in their exotic plumed hats: “Daddy, daddy, look at all the ladies coming here on bikes!”

The ensuing conflict proved anything but comic for Italy, which lost substantially more soldiers in proportion to its population—689,000 from 35 million—than did Britain, which counted 745,000 battle dead out of 46 million. But few foreigners chose to take much heed of Italy’s tragedy between 1915 and 1918, and historians focus their attention on the Western Front. All the world has heard of Ypres, Verdun, and Passchendaele, while few non-Italians know the names of Mrzli, Tolmein, Sabotino, and Podgora. These were battlefields equally steeped in blood and horror, but posterity makes no more of them than did contemporary cobelligerents.

The Italians seem a wretched people, useless as fighting men but greedy for money,” the British commander in chief in France, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, wrote in November 1917, after his nation’s ally had suffered a massive defeat at Caporetto. “Moreover, I doubt whether they are really in earnest about this war. Many of them, too, are German spies.”

Mark Thompson, a young British writer, can claim a notable achievement with his narrative history of Italy’s World War I experience. With authority, sympathy, and unusual literary skill, he illuminates an aspect of the conflict about which some of us feel embarassed to have known so little. The battlefield saga is sufficiently fascinating, but eclipsed by the portrait of Italy’s social and cultural experience within which the author sets it.

Italy industrialized late but fast, under the guidance of Giovanni Giolitti, the enlightened conservative who served as prime minister five times between 1892 and 1921. Though the country achieved unified statehood only in 1870, thereafter by way of compensation it displayed an assertive nationalism. Bismarck, dismissive of its pretensions, said that Italians had “a large appetite and very poor teeth.” They allowed the example of other European powers to persuade them that national wealth and prestige could be gained by acquiring colonies, and in 1911 fought a costly war to wrest Libya from the tottering Ottoman Empire.They also seized Rhodes …

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