The White War : Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919, Paperback Book

The White War : Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 Paperback

4 out of 5 (3 ratings)


The Western Front dominates our memories of the First World War.

Yet a million and half men died in North East Italy in a war that need never have happened, when Italy declared war on the Habsburg Empire in May 1915.

Led by General Luigi Cadorna, the most ruthless of all the Great War commanders, waves of Italian conscripts were sent charging up the limestone hills north of Trieste to be massacred by troops fighting to save their homelands.

This is a great, tragic military history of a war that gave birth to fascism.

Mussolini fought in these trenches, but so did many of the greatest modernist writers in Italian and German - Ungaretti, Gadda, Musil, Hemingway.

It is through these accounts that Mark Thompson, with great skill and empathy, brings to life this forgotten conflict.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: First World War
  • ISBN: 9780571223343

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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 reviews.

Review by

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.

Review by

An excellent account of a forgotten front. Italy entered the war in hope of gaining territory, and the secret Treaty of London agreed with the French and the British, who had no great respect for Italy or the Italian military but hoped they could tie up sufficient Austro Hungarian troops to make life easier on the Western front, promised an unlikely grab bag of territories including Greek islands and the coast of Turkey. The best that can be said is, yes, they did tie up enough Austro Hungarian troops to make a significant contribution to the eventual collapse of the empire - but at what frightful cost.All of the conflict took place either on the unforgiving Carso above Trieste, or in the Dolomites. I've been to some of the Dolomite war sites, and the task Italian troops were set by their commanders looks inhuman. The Austro Hungarians basically held all the high ground. The Italian troops were invited to charge uphill, across vast no man's land, in snow mist and fog, through barbed wire they had no means of cutting, whilst being machine gunned. It was a slaughter. And one that happened again and again and again. Unlike the Western Front, where commanders did eventually realise that mass attacks in formation across no mans land were senseless, the Italian command had no such moment of illumination. Thompson identifies 6 specific occasions where the slaughter was so bad, and so pointless, that the Austrians ordered their soldiers to stop shooting and shouted to the Italians to go back to their trenches and stop throwing their lives away. This is unparalleled in the history of warfare. The Italian army lost nearly 700,000 men killed in the war for a gain of almost nothing. The pride, incompetence and heartlessness on many fronts that led to this is exposed by Thompson but the majority of his barbs are reserved for the Commander of the Italian Armies, Luigi Cardona. Leaders of the massed armies on the Western front were careless with their men's lives as well, but very few would have made the suicidal loss of thousands of men per day such a point of pride. Combining a fatal measure of arrogance and imbecility, a great number of the lives of the dead were his responsibility. Especially when you consider that the brutal, Roman custom of decimation (killing one in every 10 of deserting or disgraced groups of soldiers) was in place, and that as well as being shot at from the front and sides by the Austrians, the Italian soldier was shot at from behind by the carabinieri and frequently bombed by his own artillery.But Thompson also has huge contempt for the odious Gabrielle D'Annunzio (the description of his occupation of Fiume his very amusingly told) and for the Italian political class in general. Its a sad story, beautifully told. Wherever possible Thompson brings individual soldiers, and their stories, into the limelight. Almost inevitably they were mistaken idealists. Almost inevitably , they died on the Carso. Of the illiterate multitudes who made up the majority of the army, we get a very different picture. Mostly, they had no idea what they were fighting for. Mostly they were from the South and the displaced Italian communities of Istria that were the casus belli for the war, meant nothing to them. Mostly they wanted to go home but died in silence in pointless mass slaughterDid this lead to the mistrust in institutions that exists in Italy even today? That's hard to say. But it would have been very difficult for the average soldier not to draw the conclusion that their government cared only for its own interests and not for theirs. And as such, perhaps the state of Italy today is another long consequence of the war

Review by

A much-needed history of the forgotten Italian front during the First World War, its brutal and bloody battles that rival the Somme and Ypres for senseless waste of lives, and its aftermath. Thompson writes well and covers the Italian-Austro-Hungarian conflict in detail, both on the field of battle and politically. He also includes translations of war poetry written by soldiers - brining a human touch to an inhuman conflict.