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 and the Dodecanese islands off Anatolia, whose Greek inhabitants were obliged to accept Italian hegemony.

When Europe erupted into war in August 1914, Italy was supposedly committed to a secret alliance with the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. But France’s triumph on the Marne persuaded some important Italians that the Allies were likely to prove victorious. Through the ensuing winter, the Italian government, led by Antonio Salandra, a lawyer from a rich land-owning family in Puglia, pursued tawdry negotiations with both sides, seeking to discover which would offer the best price for Italian support.

Rome wanted Hapsburg territory beyond its northeast frontier, which was home to many native Italians. Salandra also laid more dubious claim to lands on the eastern side of the Adriatic. Beyond this, even after the early bloodbaths on the Western Front, Italian nationalists, prominent among them the warrior-poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and the leftist socialist Benito Mussolini, were eager to express their virility by participating in the titanic conflict. While the business community and peasantry were sensibly hostile to war, many intellectuals embraced the warrior ideal with reckless passion.

Salandra told King Victor Emanuel III that Italy must either fight or face revolution. This was an entirely false proposition, but one that the weak monarch, preoccupied with photography and his coin collection, was willing to accept. The prime minister urged the cause of sacro egoismo, arguing that the war promised the opportunity to “complete and enlarge the fatherland.”

Thompson writes: “In the end the Allies wanted Italy in the war more than the Central Powers wanted it out.” In April 1915, by the Treaty of London, as shabby a piece of diplomacy as the age produced, the Allies agreed to recognize Italy’s territorial demands in return for its belligerence. The lands involved—South Tyrol, Trieste, Gorizia, Istria, Dalmatia down to Trogir, and most of the Adriatic islands south to Dubrovnik—were home to 650,000 native Italians, but also 230,000 German-speaking Austrians and 750,000 Slovenes and Croats. The Italians also gained Allied recognition of their seizure of Rhodes and the Dodecanese. On that basis, the King limply endorsed Salandra’s decision to fight.


The newspaper Corriere della Sera greeted Italy’s formal entry into the war at midnight on May 23, 1915, with a fanfare: “It is the last war of independence. Generous Italian blood prepares to trace the fulfilment of our destiny with indelible lines.” D’Annunzio exulted: “Long live our war!… Glory and victory!” Some volunteers of Italian blood but Hapsburg citizenship professed themselves eager not merely to fight but to die for Italy, like the young Triestine Antonio Bergamas. He wrote to his mother:

Tomorrow I am going away, who knows where, almost certainly to death. When this reaches you, I will no longer exist…. It is a thousand times sweeter to die facing my native land, our sea, for my natural Fatherland, than over there on the frozen fields of Galicia or the stony fields of Serbia, for a Fatherland that was not my own and that I hated.

If World War I was a catastrophe for all the participants, the British and French could at least plausibly argue that they were obliged to resist German militarism. Italy’s involvement, however, was gratuitous. Matters were made far worse by the fact that the army was commanded by General Luigi Cadorna, a strutting authoritarian of epic incompetence, even by the high standard set by his British and French counterparts.

Cadorna’s military thinking was expressed in a pamphlet he wrote back in 1895. He arranged for 25,000 copies to be distributed to his officers in the spring of 1915, although experience on the Western Front had by then laid bare its foolishness:

The offensive is profitable and almost always possible, even against mountainous positions that appear to be impregnable, thanks to dead ground that permits (a) advance under cover, (b) deployment towards the flanks or weak points, unseen by the enemy.

In May 1915, Austro-Hungarian defenses on the border with Italy, almost four hundred miles long, were negligible. Most of the old Emperor Franz Josef’s forces were away fighting the Russians. But rather than seize quick and easy gains, Cadorna lingered inexcusably, until Italian mobilization was complete. By the time he launched his first offensive on the Isonzo River, which rises in the Alps and enters the Adriatic Sea west of Trieste, he had deployed a million men—but the Austrians had manned their lines.

Cadorna, who regarded initiative by subordinates as a vice to be ruthlessly supressed, was opposed by the sixty-three-year-old Austrian Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, an able commander who combined a belief that his nation was likely to lose the war with a passion for his Italian mistress. Bizarrely, the Austrian chief of staff convinced himself that personal success on the battlefield might somehow open a path to enable his beloved Gina to divorce her husband and marry him.

“Conrad,” writes Thompson,

loved the [Austro-Hungarian] empire’s Italian holdings in the way that British colonialists loved India, with a delicious sense of entitlement…. Rationally convinced that Austria was doomed, but subconsciously bent on engineering a conflagration that would let him smash the chains separating him from the woman he loved—what could be more Viennese, more human, banal and apocalyptic?

Such vivid glimpses of personalities are characteristic of the book.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was industrially weak, producing less iron and steel than Belgium. But its motley multicultural army proved notably resilient in the face of the suicidal assaults of Cadorna’s army. The Italians were short of machine guns and artillery, and had little idea how to use what they had. Their illiterate peasant conscripts found themselves exposed to an ordeal of the most ghastly kind. Almost everywhere on the front, the Austrians held mountain positions from which they overlooked their attackers. In the summer of 1915, again and again the hapless Italians swept forward—and were massacred.

Even when they gained a brief respite from the enemy’s fire, they suffered lice and hunger, thirst and merciless heat that beat down on both armies. An Austrian officer wrote of the sun

baking the leaves on the trees to a dark crisp, until they crackle on the branch. It blanches the grass until it shatters at a touch…. It is as if the sun’s rays were multiplied by millions of mirrors, tormenting the soldiers’ eyes…. Tongues swell…. Eyes inflamed, skin like parchment. The blinding light beats everywhere, penetrating our eyelids. Our flasks are empty, sucked dry by early morning.

The Italians had never been taught latrine discipline. The stench of sun-baked feces mingled with that of death. The future novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda wrote: “Shit of every size, shape, color, texture and consistency is scattered everywhere in the vicinity of the camp, yellow, black, ash grey, swarthy, bronze; liquid, solid, etc.” Soldiers were granted no leave, discouraged from digging deep entrenchments, and denied basic comforts.


A corps commander on the Isonzo, General Vincenzo Garioni, argued in a fashion startling even in that blood-drenched era that the slaughter of his own soldiers represented “a necessary holocaust.” He claimed the killings were therapeutic, purgatives that strengthened the army for future battles, rendering it morally deserving of victory.

Thompson, illustrating the scale of 1915 losses, cites the example of the “Polenta” Brigade, which went into action with 130 officers and 6,000 men. In June 440 of these became casualties, in July 800. Some 2,822 soldiers fell attacking Podgora, a steep hill west of Gorizia. All told, in its first seven months of war the brigade lost 154 officers and 4,276 men.

To the student of strategy, Italy’s war is uninteresting, because for more than two years the same story was repeated again and again like a nightmare midnight movie. Only the characters changed, as successive casts of victims were extinguished and replaced. Cardorna, a man who makes the British generals of the Western Front seem enlightened, launched successively a second, third, fourth, and eventually twelfth battle of the Isonzo. The Carso plateau, which lay in front of Trieste, became for Italian soldiers a place of dread to rank alongside the French legend of Verdun.

The Austro-Hungarians displayed notable efficiency, digging themselves into well-protected caves and dugouts that Italian bombardments seldom penetrated. Even where Cadorna’s forces achieved local successes, these were never effectively exploited. Thompson remarks that there are few examples elsewhere in the war of defenders taking pity on their attackers, as did Austro-Hungarian troops on several well-attested occasions. Once, as the second and third waves of advancing Italians struggled to climb over the massed corpses of their predecessors, the Austrians stopped firing and called: “Stop, go back! We won’t shoot any more. Do you want everyone to die?”


Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

An Italian regiment in the Alps, circa 1915

Thompson describes the sporadic fighting that took place in the Dolomites as “baroque,” meaning that it was ornamental rather than achieving any useful military purpose. There were clashes at altitudes of up to 11,500 feet. Winter temperatures on the contested summits sometimes fell as low as -40 or -50 degrees. Both sides clung to snow-clad positions with desperate stubbornness, and neither achieved meaningful gains.

Further south, when the Austro-Hungarians began to use gas, already familiar on the Western Front, a new dimension of horror was added to the Isonzo campaign. Entire units were later discovered heaped in death. It was impossible, however, to accord to the Italians any moral superiority about this. Cadorna was eager to use gas himself, but his nation’s industry found it hard to produce reliable cylinders.

An Italian lieutenant on the Carso in the winter of 1916 wrote:

It is not dying that is the demoralizing thing, the thing that grinds you down. It is dying for the stupidity of specific orders and the cowardice of specific commanding officers.

As Italian morale flagged, Cadorna, the Duke of Aosta, and other commanders introduced arbitrary executions as a means of inciting their men to keener effort. Decimation, the practice of shooting men chosen by nomination or by lot from regiments that were deemed to have displayed insufficient determination or signs of mutiny, became commonplace in 1917.

When Italian commanders perceived their men to be surrendering too readily, they began to treat all those who fell into Austrian hands as putative traitors. The authorities prevented parcels of food and comforts dispatched by families from being forwarded to POWs. Around 100,000 Italian soldiers died in Austrian captivity, almost one in six of those taken prisoner.

Thompson interweaves his narrative of events at the front with chapters about aspects of Italian society at war. He discusses the journalists who systematically glorified Cadorna in return for access to his armies, and who told their readers nothing of the epic incompetence with which the war was being fought. The author blames the absence of skeptical press scrutiny for the fact that the commander in chief was able to bungle on for so long, and to inflict such tragedies on his own people.

Such famous and mendacious correspondents as Luigi Barzini, an ardent supporter of Cadorna, betrayed their calling and their country, as did most of their British and French contemporaries. In a great war, censorship of operational information is inescapable. But governments and commanders almost always find it irresistible to extend this to shield their own follies. Significant lessons were learned from the pretty shameful press experience of the democracies in World War I, so that in the 1939–1945 conflict the American and British media provided somewhat sharper criticism of inadequate generals, weapons, equipment, and tactics.

David Lloyd George, who became Britain’s prime minister in 1916, sustained an implausible faith that the Italian front might offer an opportunity to break the stalemate in France and Flanders. Thompson suggests that he was encouraged in this folly by the head of the British Military Mission at Cadorna’s headquarters, Brigadier General Charles Delmé-Radcliffe. Radcliffe’s messages to London reflected a taste for fantasy worthy of Cadorna himself. He reported that most Ital-ians were enthusiastic about the war, that defeatism was merely the consequence of

this damn anti-war propaganda…. The spirit of all the Italian troops is excellent…. All the prospects on the Carso are also satisfactory.

This last was written in August 1917, just as the eleventh Isonzo battle was petering out in failure.

Thompson’s book contains a vivid portrait of Gabriele d’Annunzio, a posturing nationalist dandy whose literary reputation stood much higher in his own time than it does today. Though already in his fifties, d’Annunzio served with an infantry regiment. He could claim personal credit for follies that killed hundreds of men. On one occasion in May 1917, he caused a unit to cross the river Timavo with the objective of planting a national flag on the summit of the clifftop castle of Duino, so as to inspire the army.

D’Annunzio was so disgusted by the spectacle of some survivors of this spectacularly unsuccessful foray surrendering to the enemy that he ordered Italian artillery to fire on their captive countrymen. He applauded Cadorna’s decimation policy toward fainthearts, and enjoyed watching firing squads do their business. The impact of his activities on morale was equivocal. The day after the Duino fiasco, eight hundred men of the same brigade surrendered to the enemy, complete with rifles and packs.

Thompson includes a chapter on Italy’s war poets, of whom the most celebrated was Giuseppe Ungaretti, in 1916 a twenty-eight-year-old private in the 19th Infantry. Ungaretti wrote:

This is the Isonzo
And here I best
recognize myself:
a yielding fiber
of the universe

My torment’s
When I
Don’t believe myself
In harmony

But those hidden
that soak and blend me
regale me with

Ungaretti somehow survived two and a half years at the front, and lived until 1970. The experience wrung out of him, as it did out of most of his comrades, all nationalist passion. “There is no trace in my poetry of hatred for the enemy, or anyone else,” he said later. He became a Fascist for a time, but then grew disenchanted with all politicians, and declared himself an anarchist. Thompson suggests that his real feelings were best expressed in lines written in France in 1918:

I seek an
innocent country.

Before the tenth Isonzo battle in May 1917, Cadorna shuffled tactical arrangements and altered details of his planning, but contrived only to achieve the most spectacular massacre of his career. The Austrians, outnumbered two-to-one, lost only 7,300 killed. The attacking Italians suffered 150,000 casualties in three weeks, 36,000 of these fatal.

More decimations followed. In the Ravenna Brigade, after men protested about cancellation of their promised leave, five were chosen by lot for death. Six volleys were needed to finish the job. The general’s aide told a brigade commander that the measures adopted “seemed a little exaggerated” and had shattered morale. The day before, a condemned soldier howled at his executioners: “What have I done to make you shoot me? I’ve got seven children!” The carabinieri hesitated. The divisional commander said: “Let us be done with this jabbering. Shoot them at once. Orders are orders.”

The stalemate on the Italian front was broken in a dramatic fashion on October 24, 1917. Ten Austrian divisions, reinforced by seven German formations, launched a massive assault at Caporetto. They were well informed about Cadorna’s defenses, having broken Italian codes, and used phosgene gas, against which Italian masks offered no protection. The Friuli brigade lost seven hundred men in a matter of minutes.

Amid fog and freezing rain, the Austrians and Germans—who included the young lieutenant Erwin Rommel—used infiltration tactics to penetrate between the defenders’ positions. The front collapsed. Some 12,000 Italians died, but 30,000 were wounded and 294,000 taken prisoner. Some 3,000 guns, 300,000 rifles, and 3,000 machine guns were lost. Cadorna wrote to his son:

The men are not fighting. That’s the situation, and plainly a disaster is imminent…. Do not worry about me, my conscience is wholly clean…. I am very calm indeed and too proud to be affected by anything that anybody can say.

Fleeing Italians streamed westward, chanting, “The war’s over! We’re going home! Up with the Pope! Up with Russia!” According to an officer who testified to the subsequent commission of inquiry,

the soldiers appeared to think…they were on their way home, mostly in high spirits, as if they had found the solution to a difficult problem.

Yet the Austrians and Germans, after achieving stunning success—“only half of the Italian Army’s 65 divisions survived intact”—lacked impetus to follow through, to render their victory conclusive. Though 14,000 square kilometers of Italian territory had been lost, a new line was formed. Cadorna was at last removed, to be replaced by the fifty-seven-year-old Armando Diaz, a competent Neapolitan. Italy’s allies, acutely alarmed by its near collapse, dispatched 130,000 French and 110,000 British troops to reinforce the front.

The Caporetto offensive represented a last gasp by the failing Hapsburg empire, whose resources were thereafter exhausted. Austrian rations and ammunition supplies dwindled. More imaginative and sympathetic generalship revived Italian morale. In the last months of the war, Diaz presided over a series of remarkable victories. The battles of the Solstice and Vittorio Veneto redeemed, in some small measure, Italy’s earlier defeats. By November 1918, Italian forces were driving into Hapsburg territory.

Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando fought tigerishly at the Versailles Peace Conference not only for the lands promised to Italy under the Treaty of London, but also for the port of Fiume. He and many of his countrymen were determined to extract booty that seemed commensurate with the scale of their country’s sufferings. Beyond the dead, the war had brought financial ruin, costing the Italian treasury a sum equivalent to twice the entire government expenditures between 1861 and 1913.

The Allied powers gave way to most of Italy’s demands. Its new borders embraced 650,000 Italians—but also 300,000 Slovenes, 200,000 Croats, and 250,000 Austrians. Gabriele d’Annunzio capped his fantastic career by posturing in Fiume, which the Versailles treaty-makers declared an independent state under the League of Nations. He raved that “either Fiume will be Italian or I too will leave Fiume dead, wrapped in the flag.” After five years of turbulence, Mussolini’s regime eventually annexed the city in 1924.

Mark Thompson’s book was hailed on its 2008 publication in Britain as an outstandingly original contribution to the study of the period. The author writes vividly about the chaos of nationalities in the dying Hapsburg empire, which influences events in the former Yugoslavia in our own times. Moreover, an understanding of Italian intellectuals’ obsession both with their own national identity and with the supposed dignity of war is important to understanding not only the 1914–1918 period, but also the subsequent rise of Fascism. Every European nation was guilty of disastrous misjudgments in the approach to World War I, but Italy’s conduct was uniquely foolish. It chose to mobilize in pursuit of territorial advantage at a moment when the conflict’s scale and ghastly character was already apparent. It then conducted military operations even more recklessly than the other Allies.

Neutrality could have been a boon. A disillusioned staff officer, Colonel Angelo Gatti, wrote after Caporetto:

This whole war has been a heap of lies. We came into the war because a few men in authority, “the dreamers,” flung us into it. They could not accept that you don’t do politics by dreaming. Politics is reality. You don’t stake the future of a nation on a dream, a yearning for reinvigoration. It is idiotic to imagine that war can be a means of healing.

Yet even after the sacrifice of 1915–1918, Mussolini was able to lead his nation into new wars, first to seize Abyssinia in 1936, then in support of the Axis cause in 1940. The fatal lure of territorial expansion persisted. Had he held back from his alliance with Hitler, he might have prospered in tyranny as long as did Franco in Spain. It is ironic that a nation that the world perceives as militarily incompetent should so often in modern times have staked everything, and lost so much, in pursuit of martial glory. Thompson’s book gives a fascinating, indeed brilliant, portrait of a society immolated by its own delusions.