Book Review: The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915 - 1919
Curtis Szmania reviews Mark Thompson's book on the little-known Italian Front in World War I.
The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919
Book Author: Mark Thompson
Publisher: Basic Books, 2011
Scanning through the books at Amazon.com or strolling through my local library, Iím always on the lookout for a book about World War One. Iím fascinated by the First World War because of the scale of the conflict, the immense carnage, and the outdated tactics used by the military commanders time and time again even when the results were the same. Spanning six continents and more than 16 million killed as result of military action, no previous conflict had as much a global impact. When most people think of World War One they picture the muddy trenches, the biplane dogfights, and the endless pounding of artillery rounds. This sure is a great description of the Western Front, but not so much the Italian Front. Though the Italian Front possessed all of these characteristics they were on a much smaller scale. The conflict between Italy and Austria-Hungary was of lesser importance than the Western and Eastern Fronts as far as the priority of resources concerning the belligerents. The third-string position the Italian Front attained also reflects on the focus of study by World War One historians. But this lack of awareness is exactly what drew my attention to the subject and thus to The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919.
The cover of the book is what stood out from all the other books in the World War One section at my local library. Iíve grown much accustomed to the book covers of doughboys going ďover-the-topĒ and running across the muddy and crater-ridden no manís land. But this cover had snow, mountain peaks, and no trenches! This is exactly what I was looking for but itís not what I got.
Mark Thompson, the author of The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, can be seen in a picture on the inside cover of the book. What I extracted from the portrait is that he seems to be of Italian descent. In addition, further in the book he goes on to describe his recent travels to northern Italy where he became familiar with Venetia and the Alpine region (Italian Front). After reading I also assumed he is quite fluent in the Italian language. His ties to Italy become apparent throughout the book as one reads on. There is a slight, but noticeable, one-sided and biased perception of the Italian Front from cover to cover. At times the biased point of view may seem so strong that itís all just Italian propaganda. To shed some light, Thompson interviews many World War One vets who served on the Italian Front; and every single one was Italian! Talk about getting only one side of the story.
But it doesnít end there. Thompson continues with his biased perspective through many different aspects of the Italian front. He focuses more on the Italian politicians, the Italian poets, the Italian artists, the Italian heroes, the Italian diplomatic decisions, and the Italian military commanders than their Austrian counterparts. But in following those guidelines the author did stress one very important character, Field Marshal Cadorna. Thompsonís description of Cadorna is detailed and extensive comprising a sort of mini-biography of the chief of staff of the Italian army. His narrative on the chief of staff spans the whole book. Thompson purposely makes apparent the great influence Cadorna had during this time in Italy. Not only was he a general, he was a powerful political figure whose influence rivaled even that of the king, at times. The image Thompson creates of the chief of staff made Cadorna appear as a dictator; which seems ironic as Mussoliniís March on Rome was only a couple years away. But this is no mistake. The author makes clear that the Generalissimo and Il Duce were intertwined, clearly illustrating that one figure evolved from the other.
The authorís great skill at portraying famous Italian personages of the war cannot overshadow my opinion; that war was indeed an afterthought in this book. Babbling on about Italian artists, poets, and politicians is all good and fine but not when the book bears the subtitle Life and Death on the Italian Front 1914-1918. Time and again Thompson would fill a chapter with mini-bios of artists and other non-military things only to add a little tidbit at the end of the chapter about the happenings of the war and its military operations. I thought this was a military history book. But it seems the authorís agenda was something else.
When I check out a book called The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1914-1918 I expect just that, a narrative on the Italian Front during World War One. Thatís not what I got. If it wasnít for the few sporadic sentences about Austria-Hungary I happened to find in the book, a reader wouldnít know who the Italians were fighting on the Italian Front. But in effect Italy was fighting itself during the war as Thompson, who so skillfully narrated everything that was Italian, didn't forget to mention its moral and internal problems.
If you like a book about in-depth military operations and war theory then stay away from this one. If the bias perspective doesnít get on your nerves then perhaps the endless chatter about Italian World War One poets will. Perhaps itís not what is written on the pages is what is wrong; maybe itís what is written on the cover. I think it might have received a better review had the book been titled The White War: Poetry and Politicians on the Italian Front 1914-1919.
The Good: Very descriptive of the Italian point of view during the war, several examples of the influences poetry, art, and morale had on the Italian Front, a great narrative on the life and the power wielded by Cadorna, lists several excuses for Italyís controversial diplomatic actions during the war, the author made clearly visible the link between the misfortunes Italy faced after the war and the rise of Mussolini, the author has a good understanding of all the workings of a war that are non-military
The Bad: Biased Italian perspective and selective range of sources (interviewees), military operations and events of the battlefield are an afterthought
Review written by: Curtis Szmania, Writer