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

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915–1919

By Mark Thompson
Basic Books, 2009
Len Shurtleff & the Editors, Reviewers

Italian Trench, Asiago Plateau

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915–1919 is a well-crafted and thoroughly researched overview of Italian participation in the Great War, a subject too often ignored by English-speaking historians. The author's use of "White War" in his title is somewhat misleading. The term usually is a reference to the portion of the war waged in the high Alps, which—though spectacular—was a lesser part of the war on the Italian Front, both in scale and strategically. Thompson's effort is comprehensive. He details all the military events on the Italian Front from the opening of the war there in May 1915 through the armistice of 4 November 1918. He also traces the main outlines of Italian politics, including character sketches of the principal military and civilian actors and the often ham-handed Italian diplomacy of the war.

While the Italian public was overwhelmingly anti-Austrian in the weeks leading up to hostilities, there was no popular groundswell of popular opinion favoring war. Italy had been a member of a Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungry dating back to the 1880s. Seeking to increase its territory, the Salandro government refused to go to war in August 1914. Instead, it opened negotiations with both Vienna and with Great Britain and France seeking to expand Italia irredenta, which reclaimed allegedly Italian territories in the Tyrol, Trieste, Gorizia, Istria, and Dalmatia. While Vienna balked at handing over territory, France and Britain promised everything the Italian irredentists desired and more, including lands in Turkish Anatolia.

Italy was militarily, politically, and economically unprepared for war. Its army was ill trained, ill equipped (particularly in artillery), and badly led. As a largely agrarian nation, it lacked heavy industry. Nonetheless, in May 1915 Italian forces cautiously advanced across the Austrian frontier in the Tyrol and on the Carso Plateau northwest of Trieste. There the front remained static for some 29 months as Italian casualties mounted during 12 major battles along the Isonzo River. The stalemate was not broken until October 1917, when combined Austrian and German forces pushed the Italians back 150 kilometers in the Battle of Caporetto.

The Caporetto defeat provided the catalyst needed to spark a reorganization of the Italian war effort. The Italian high command was purged, treatment of soldiers vastly improved, and new financing made available for expanded domestic munitions production. A year later, with help from England, France, and America, Italy had defeated her Habsburg enemy. In the ten years since its publication, The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915–1919 has proven to be the most authoritative work on the Great War's Italian Front.

Revised from the original presentation in the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire, July 2009


  1. This sounds essential. Thank you for the review.

    PS: how are the maps?

  2. I hate Mr Thompson! Having identified the Italian war effort as one mostly ignored by writers in English, I had begun to gather material for a book on the subject when I was trumped by publication of 'The White War' - and moreover it was so much better than anything I could have produced! But I am still in awe of the fortitude shown by soldiers of both sides grappling and enduring - especially enduring - in the snows of the high Alps. Astonishing and humbling.