Penetrating study of one of the forgotten fronts of the Great War.
Italy went to war with the neighboring Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1915 for complex reasons, writes British historian Thompson (Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Hercegovina, 2003, etc.), not least of them the irredentist view that ethnic Italians belonged to a greater Italy. The Allies abetted this view, promising to render Tyrol, Trieste and the Dalmatian coast to Italy, as well as portions of the Greek islands, Turkey and Africa. Italy’s politicians pitched an inadequately prepared and provisioned army against a tactically superior enemy, which held most of the high ground. The “white war” of Thompson’s title refers to the snowy peaks along the alpine front, but also to the sheer limestone walls that gleamed white in summer and had to be scaled—the Western front, Thompson memorably notes, tilted 45 degrees. In any season, the front was terrible, and thousands of men died—in sheer percentages, at a higher rate of casualty than in much better-known battles in France and Belgium. A few future historical giants turn up in Thompson’s pages, including Benito Mussolini, Gabriele d’Annunzio and Erwin Rommel, but mostly his informants are the forgotten soldiers of the forgotten war, one of whom recalled, “We kill each other like this, coldly, because whatever does not touch the sphere of our own life does not exist.” Many of the ethnic groups in which those soldiers figured would reappear in the history of Europe, among them Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Slovenes, “whose alleged pacifism would be a stock joke in Tito’s Yugoslavia” but who drew rivers of Italian blood. Ironically, Italy never got its promised empire, though Mussolini would spend much effort and countless lives seeking it.
A much-needed addition to the literature of World War I, which is undergoing substantial revision nearly a century after it was fought.