September 27, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front

By |2020-04-11T00:19:41+02:00March 20th, 2009|Books, Recent Reviews|

By Mark Thompson

Faber and Faber, 2008. 480 pages.


his volume should be required reading for anyone trying to make sense of contemporary Italy. Yes, it’s limited to World War I and yes, Hemingway covered the same territory in “A Farewell to Arms.” But you can find the answer to everything here, from why every town in Italy has the same street names — Diaz, Cadorna, Piave, Isonzo — to the country’s not always disguised taste for militarism.

Political rhetoric, modern Italian art, twentieth-century literature, Fascism and Italy’s anxiety about its European role are in here too. That is if you can get through it before throwing down the book in disgust over how Italy’s pig-headed commanders learned nothing from their mistakes, or rather never recognized them for such until they culminated in the humiliation of Caporetto.

Page after page exposes poor decisions followed by unbelievable suffering. Men fought in trenches flooded with mud, at thousands of meters of elevation, without training, supplies and moral support.

On the contrary, these poor fellows uprooted from homes across Italy suffered summary executions, decimation (in the real sense of random exemplary executions) unmatched by any other army in the war. Supreme Commander Luigi Cadorna treated men as if they did not deserve even the raw fate hundreds of thousands met. And yet many Italians turn sentimental about this defining moment, when Sardinian fought side-by-side with Calabrian and Triestino, and Italy behaved as a single, modern nation.

What saves the reader from utter fatigue is Thompson’s broad and sensitive mastery of nuance and huge amounts of documentary material. One could admire him for wading through newspapers and dispatches of blood-thirsty nationalistic prose and the tragic diaries of soldiers alone. But add to this his ability to absorb and marshal his facts and admiration becomes pure pleasure (assuming, of course, that mastery of this kind is to your liking).

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."