- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LIFE AND DEATH ON THE ITALIAN FRONT 1915-1919

By Mark Thompson

Basic Books, $30, 480 pages

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden

Of all the military stupidities that mark mankind’s gory history, the Italian front campaign of World War I is sui generis. Seldom, if ever, have so many men shed so much blood for no discernible reason other than political ego, fed into battle by criminally incompetent “leaders.”

The cover photograph of Mark Thompson’s book vividly illustrates the absurd impossibility of what the Italian army was asked to do. It shows soldiers clambering out of a trench and moving up an ice-and-snow coated slope that juts skyward at about a 45-degree angle - a route that would challenge an ice-climber, much less men burdened with a 45-pound kit.

As a fairly keen student of military history, I must admit that my knowledge of the Italian front pretty much starts and stops with Ernest Hemingway’s novel “A Farewell to Arms.” Now, Mr. Thompson shows us that the true story is even more horrible than fiction, with a work that garnered no less than eight “best book of 2008” from British publications last year - and deservedly so, for his writing is so vivid, so detailed, so sobering that a reader must take an occasional break from the horrors he describes.

Learn, as I did, that Italy lost more combat deaths in proportion to population than did Britain, 689,000 from 35 million, versus 743,000 out of 46 million. The bulk of the battles were between the Alps and the Adriatic. Imagine, Mr. Thompson writes, “the flat or gently rolling horizon of Flanders tilting at 30 or 40 degrees,” with Austrian troops holding the high ground behind rows of barbed wire and a parapet of stone.

When the war began, Italy initially leaned toward the Germans. However, early French victories caused rethinking, and Italy chose to war against remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and reclaim scattered northern territories lost over the years. France and Britain agreed to support the desired territorial concessions when the war ended. Their chief interest, of course, was that the Italians would draw enemy troops from the Western front.

According to Mr. Thompson, Italy’s grounds for war were slim. “Alone among the major Allies, Italy claimed no defensive reason for fighting. It was an open aggressor, intervening for territory and status. The Italians were more divided over the war than any other people. But for a minority, the cause was whiter than white: Italy had to throw itself into the struggle, not only to extend its borders, but to strengthen the nation. In the furnace of war, Italy’s provincial differences could blend and harden into a national alloy.”

One feels pity for the fighting men. Mr. Thompson writes, “Even by the standards of the Great War, Italy’s soldiers were treated harshly. The worst-paid infantry in Western Europe were sent to the front sketchily trained and ill-equipped, sacrificed to the doctrine of the frontal assault, ineptly supported by artillery.”

The Italian commander was a dolt named Gen. Luigi Cadorna, whose military “thinking” - is the word deserved? - was summarized in an 1895 pamphlet, 25,000 copies of which were distributed to his officers at the outset of war. He wrote, “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.” Anyone who has completed a basic infantry training course perhaps would disagree.

Gen. Cadorna dithered for months while the Austro-Hungarian forces built reinforced mountain positions that commanded the battlefield. The bulk of the fighting was along the Isonzo, a river that rose in the Alps and flowed down to the Adriatic. Incredibly, Cadorna launched no less than 12 separate assaults over this ground, all of them repelled. Even the defenders were repelled by the carnage. Mr. Thompson recounts the Austrian captain who shouted to the Italians, “Stop, go back! We won’t shoot anymore. Do you want everyone to die?” He cites a host of similar incidents.

But the Italians had no choice. Gen. Cadorna decreed that units which flinched in battle were subject to punishment by decimation - 1 man in 10 would be shot. Names were pulled out of a hat to pick those who faced the firing squad.

Punishments were arbitrary - one man was executed because he deigned to salute an officer without taking his pipe from his mouth. Italy mobilized roughly the same number of men as did Britain; it executed 3 times as many.

Soldiers who were captured were considered deserters, and food packages from families were withheld. Of the 600,000 Italians captured, more than 100,000 died. Mr. Thompson observes, “Statistically, it was more dangerous for the infantry to be taken prisoner than to stay alive on the front line.”

A colonel named Angelo Gatti wrote after the battle of Caporetto, which cost the Italians 12,000 lives, 30,000 wounded, and 294,000 prisoners, “This whole war has been a heap of lies. We came into the war because a few men in authority, ‘the dreamers,’ 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.”

Incredibly, even amidst the carnage, an ambitious Italian politician offered a positive view of the war, looking forward to the day when Italy would be governed by a “trenchocracy, a new and better elite.” His name was Benito Mussolini, and what he did to Italy is another story for another day.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence.

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