Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Soldier on the Southern Front
Reviewed by Dennis Linton

A Soldier on the Southern Front: The Classic Italian Memoir of World War I

by Emilio Lussu, translated by Gregory Conti
Rizzoli Ex Libris; reprint edition, 2014

He greeted me very warmly and offered me a glass of brandy.

"Thanks," I said. "I don't drink liquor."
"You don't drink liquor?" the Lieutenant Colonel asked me, concerned.
He pulled a notebook out of the pocket of his battle jacket and wrote,
"Met a lieutenant who didn't drink liquor, June 5, 1916."

The odd exchange above could have easily come from the British comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, but in reality it is a recollection in the memoir of Emilio Lussu, A Soldier on the Southern Front: The Classic Italian Memoir of World War I. A rediscovered memoir, or testimony as addressed by the author, the book was originally titled Sardinian Brigade in 1938. As the author stated in the preface of the first printing of the work: "The reader will find neither romance nor history in this book, it consists simply of personal memories put together in somewhat haphazard fashion."

Emilio Lussu fought heroically throughout the war but chose to narrow the events in the memoir to June 1916 through July 1917. In an Afterword, Mark Thompson explains that although many of the names were fictionalized, the majority of the people and events are real, no matter how absurd and often tragic.

Italian Troops on the Asiago Plateau

Lussu first enters the Great War as a young Sardinian officer early in the Italian theater in 1915. He is a platoon leader in the Sassari Brigade manned almost exclusively by men from Sardinia. The brigade consists mainly of farmers and fishermen led by reserve officers. For most of the Sardinians, the Asiago Plain where they will fight in Northeastern Italy is as foreign as England or Germany. The men of the Sassari Brigade have such strong loyalty to their comrades that their leaders often send soldiers forward to die uselessly in the name of honor and to prove unwavering respect to authority.

Throughout the book, Lt Lussu shows some of the dry wit that will be a mainstay of humor but absurdity on the Italian front. Sent on a mission with a platoon, he comes upon the commander of another regiment sitting at a table drinking brandy. In fact, as the colonel pointed out each of the positions he did so with his brandy bottle in his hand. Suddenly a firefight starts in the dark and a prisoner is taken. Upon further inquiry, it is a man from Lussu's regiment; the Italian regiments were firing at each other, not the enemy. This type of scene repeatedly happens in the memoir.

The book is full of futile frontal assaults up mountains or on high plain with sparse or no artillery support and little ammunition against a prepared Austrian Army. Throughout the futility, patriotic but drunken inept leadership commands the soldiers. There is just as great a chance to die from friendly fire as there is from an enemy sniper. If the units do not respond with enough vigor, then summary execution by their leaders are not only threatened but carried out.

Even the enemy has empathy for the Italians. At one point, the Austrians are scathing the Sardinians with brutal machine gun fire when suddenly the enemy guns go silent and the Austrians cry out, "That's enough! You are brave men. Don't let yourselves be shot like this!" After the Italians have once again been ordered forward by their general who stays safely in the trench, the barbed wire stifles them, and the Austrians keep firing…but over their heads.

Events such as these are frequent on the southern front of the Great War. I recommend Lussu's memoir and also Mark Thompson's The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915–1919, to gain an appreciation of this overlooked part of the history of the war.

Dennis Linton


  1. Well reviewed, Dennis. Sounds like a very useful and sometimes entertaining book.

  2. Some of this reminds me of A Soldier of the Great War, which was also an interesting account. Thanks for a fine review.

  3. Thank you for the review. I have the 1st American edition of The Sardinian Brigade, but haven't read it yet.