Magazine article The Spectator

Slippery Slopes

Magazine article The Spectator

Slippery Slopes

Article excerpt

THE WHITE WAR:LIFE AND DEATH IN THE ITALIAN FRONT 19-15-1919 by Mark Thompson Faber, £25, pp. 454, ISBN 9780571223336 £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 66

Italy's participation in the first world war was so far from being inevitable that it took nearly nine months for the country's government to decide on which side they should fight.

In the first week of August 1914, Italian troops were massed close to the French border, ready to invade, and General Cadorna was drawing up plans to transport forces to Germany, a nation he assumed would be his ally. Nine months later, after protracted secret negotiations with both groups of combatants, Italy switched allegiance and entered the war on the side of France and Britain.

Foreign observers concluded that the Italians were, in Asquith's words, 'voracious, slippery and perfidious'. Such judgments, apart from being unduly self-righteous (all the combatant countries hoped for territorial gains), failed to take account of the fact that the Great War was made up of a number of overlapping smaller conflicts.

Italy -- largely indifferent to the reprise of Franco-Prussian hostilities -- initially declared war only on Austria-Hungary. For the people of the peninsula this was, first and foremost, the Fourth War of Italian Independence.

Mark Thompson's book is the first comprehensive account in English of a war which most anglophone readers will know only from Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Thompson has worked for the UN in Croatia: his previous two books were about Yugoslavia, the state whose creation thwarted Italian war-aims in 1919. He knows the battlefield; he knows the contenders (most of the 'Austrian' troops confronting the Italians were in fact Slovenian, Croatian or Bosnian). He has a sophisticated understanding of the links between culture and action, between a nation's morale and its ability to fight.

Imagine, writes Thompson, the western front -- its trenches, its barbed wire, its mud, its unburied corpses -- then imagine that the ground is made of limestone tilted at 40 degrees, in summer a griddle, in winter a frozen slide. The Italians attacked uphill, striving for the Alpine watershed which the nationalists considered their natural frontier. …

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