Authors: Mark Thompson
Tags: #Europe, #World War I, #Italy, #20th century history: c 1900 to c 2000, #Military History, #European history, #War & defence operations, #General, #Military - World War I, #1914-1918, #Italy - History, #Europe - Italy, #First World War, #History - Military, #Military, #War, #History
The White War
Life and Death on the Italian Front
For Noel, George, and Sanja –
in time and always
Prime Minister Antonio Salandra
Baron Sidney Sonnino
Gabriele D’Annunzio (
Archivio ‘Fotografie storiche della grande
guerra’ della Biblioteca civica Villa Valle, Valdagno, image no. 0087
Benito Mussolini in 1915 (
Mary Evans Picture Library
General Cadorna visiting British batteries in spring 1917 (
Storico Italiano della Guerra, Rovereto, photo no. 8/2892
Mount Mrzli (
Austro-Hungarian troops on the Carso
View from Mount San Michele to Friuli
Trieste and its port in 1919
A farming family in Friuli
View from Mount San Michele to the River Isonzo
Mount Tofana and the Castelletto (
Italian second-line camp
The ‘road of heroes’ on Mount Pasubio (
Infantry attack on the Carso, 1917 (
Imperial War Museum, London,
image no. Q 115175
Boccioni’s ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’ (1913) (
Italian first line on the southern Carso, 1917 (
IWM, HU 97058
Emperor Karl and General Boroević
(By courtesy of Sergio
Italian wounded below Mount San Gabriele
Bosnian prisoners of war
(IWM, HU 89218)
Panoramic view of the Isonzo valley and Mount Krn (
Italian dead at Flitsch, 24 October 1917 (
IWM, Q 23968
Third Army units retreating to the River Piave, early November 1917 (
Italian prisoners of war (
IWM, Q 86136
Italian cavalry crossing the River Monticano (
Entering Gorizia, November 1918
The Big Four in Paris, 1919 (
Mary Evans Picture Library
The Adriatic Sea, from the edge of the Carso
References refer to the books from which the quotations have been taken as listed in the bibliography, and can be found at the end of each chapter.
Some of the most savage fighting of the Great War happened on the front where Italy attacked the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Around a million men died in battle, of wounds and disease or as prisoners. Until the last campaign, the ratio of blood shed to territory gained was even worse than on the Western Front. Imagine the flat or gently rolling horizon of Flanders tilting at 30 or 40 degrees, made of grey limestone that turns blinding white in summer. At the top, Austrian machine guns are tucked behind rows of barbed wire and a parapet of stones. At the bottom, Italians crouch in a shallow trench. The few outsiders who witnessed this fighting believed that ‘Nobody who hasn’t seen it can guess what fighting is needed to go up slopes [like these].’
This front ran the length of the Italian–Austrian border, some 600 kilometres (almost 400 miles) from the Swiss border to the Adriatic Sea. On the high Alpine sectors, the armies lived and fought in year-round whiteness. As on other fronts, the armies were separated by a strip of no-man’s land. Peering at a field cap bobbing above the enemy trench, an Italian soldier reflected on the conditions that made the carnage possible:
We kill each other like this, coldly, because whatever does not touch the sphere of our own life does not exist … If I knew anything about that poor lad, if I could once hear him speak, if I could read the letters he carries in his breast, only then would killing him like this seem to be a crime.
If the anonymity was mutual, so was the peril. Better than anyone in the world, the enemy who wants to kill you knows your anguish. The deafening preliminary barrage, the inconceivable tension before ‘zero hour’, the pandemonium of no-man’s land: trench assaults did not vary much in the First World War. Likewise, the patterns of collusion which made life more bearable between the battles – shooting high, staging fake raids, respecting tacit truces to fetch the wounded and bury the dead, even swapping visits and gifts.
Another kind of collusion was so rare that very few instances were recorded on any front. It happened when defending units spontaneously stopped shooting during an attack and urged their enemy to return to their line. On one occasion, the Austrian machine gunners were so effective that the second and third waves of Italian infantry could hardly clamber over the corpses of their comrades. An Austrian captain shouted to his gunners, ‘What do you want, to kill them all? Let them be.’ The Austrians stopped firing and called out: ‘Stop, go back! We won’t shoot any more. Do you want everyone to die?’
Italian veterans described at least half a dozen such cases. In an early battle, the infantry tore forward, scrambling over the broken ground, screaming and brandishing their rifles. The Austrian trench was uncannily silent. The Italian line broke and clotted as it moved up the slope until there were only groups of men hopping from the shelter of one rock to the next, ‘like toads’. Then a voice called from the enemy line: ‘Italians! Go back! We don’t want to massacre you!’ A lone Italian jumped up defiantly and was shot; the others turned and ran.
A few weeks earlier, in September 1915, the Austrians urged the survivors of an Italian company to stop fighting and go back to their own line, taking their wounded, or they would all die. ‘You can see there is no escape!’ Eventually the Italians gave up, and the Austrians hurried down with stretchers and cigarettes. The Italians gave them black feathers from their plumed hats and stars from their collars as souvenirs. A year later, a Sardinian battalion attacked positions on the Asiago plateau where, unusually, no-man’s land sloped downhill towards the Austrians. As the Italians stumbled over boulders, the enemy machine gunners had to keep adjusting their elevation; this saved the battalion from being wiped out. As the survivors drew close to the enemy trench, an Austrian shouted in Italian: ‘That’s enough! Stop firing!’ Other Austrians looking over the parapet took up the cry. When the shooting stopped, the first Austrian, who might have been a chaplain, called to the Italians: ‘You are brave men. Don’t get yourselves killed like this.’
If there is any proof that such scenes were played out on other fronts, I have not found it. A Turkish officer may have shouted to the Australians attacking The Nek in August 1915 during the Gallipoli campaign, telling them to go back. Even if he did so, the Turkish machine gunners kept shooting and the Australians kept dying. The following month, German machine gunners may eventually have stopped firing on Hill 70, in the Battle of Loos, when the British columns ‘offered such a target as had never been seen before, or even thought possible’. The incidents reported on the Italian front went further than this. To take their measure, bear in mind that there was no shortage of hatred on this front, that soldiers could relish the killing here as much as elsewhere, the Austrians were outnumbered and fighting for their lives, and any officer or soldier caught assisting the enemy in this way would face a court martial.
These deterrents could be overcome only by the spectacle of a massacre so futile that pity and revulsion forced a recognition of oneself in the enemy, thwarting the habit of discipline and the reflex of self- interest. Half a dozen cases over three years might not mean much if other fronts had thrown up examples of the same thing. As it is, they suggest that courage, incompetence, fanaticism and topography combined on this front to create conditions unlike any others in the Great War, and extreme by any standard in history. This is the story of those conditions.
Think of Italy: the clearest borders in mainland Europe. From Sicily by the toe, past Naples and Rome, up to Florence and Genoa, that long limb looks like nothing else on the globe. Further north, the situation is less distinct. Above the basin of the River Po, Alpine foothills rise sharply in the west, more gradually to the east. The eastern Alps do not crown the peninsula tidily; they run parallel to the northern Adriatic shore, curving down to the sea after 200 kilometres. The rivers rising on the south side of these ranges flow through foothills that drop a thousand metres to the coastal plain, some 60 kilometres from the sea. Flying into Trieste airport on a clear day, you see the rivers’ stony courses like grey braids: the Piave in the distance, then the Livenza and the Tagliamento. Closest of all, passing only a couple of kilometres from the runway, is the River Isonzo. Rising in the easternmost Alps, the Isonzo follows geological faultlines, piling through gorges only a few metres wide, bisecting steep wooded ridges, then emerging near Gorizia. Its lower course, strewn with rubble from the mountains, follows a wide curve to the sea. The water threads the white detritus like a turquoise ribbon through a sleeve of bones. In dry summers, the ribbon vanishes altogether. East of the river and the airport, a ridge of high ground rises ‘like a great wall above the plains of Friuli’. This is the Carso plateau, and it marks the edge of the Adriatic microplate. Further south, this ripple becomes a tectonic barrier, a limestone rampart that cuts southeastwards for 700 kilometres, as far as Albania.
This corner of the country, between the River Tagliamento and the eastern Alps, hardly seems Italian in the obvious ways. Most of the towns are raw and somehow sad. The hillsides boast no renaissance villas, the museums hold little that is familiar, and the church towers are mostly concrete. No olive groves, rosy brick barns or terracotta tiles, and precious little marble (except in war memorials). Even the food and grape varieties are different. Other languages – Slovenian, Friulan – jostle with Italian on the signposts, sharpening the sense of anomaly. It is, unmistakably, a multiethnic area, a fact that sometimes enraged the architects of Italian unification in the nineteenth century.
In the 1840s, the rulers of Piedmont, in north-western Italy, planned how to amalgamate half a dozen kingdoms, duchies and Habsburg provinces into a nation state. They wanted the northern border to reach the Alpine watershed, or beyond it, all the way from the Swiss border to the Istrian peninsula. When the First World War began, the Austro- Hungarian Empire still straddled the Alps, penetrating far into Italian territory. After months of political turmoil, Italy’s rulers joined the Allied war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. They hoped to defeat Austria and finally claim their ideal border. Less publicly, they wanted to control the eastern Adriatic seaboard, where few Italians lived, and become a power in the Balkans.
The Allies, desperate for help against the Central Powers, met these conditions, and agreed as well to award Italy some territory in Albania and the Aegean sea, to enlarge its African colonies and let it share the spoils in Turkey if the Ottoman Empire fell apart. On these hard-nosed terms, Italy launched what patriots called ‘the fourth war of independence’. The foremost goal was the capture of this wedge of land around the northern Adriatic, an area smaller than the English county of Kent.
It also wanted part of the Habsburg province of Tyrol, from Lake Garda up to the Alpine watershed. Italy’s strategy of attacking eastwards meant there was not much fighting around the Tyrol. The army massed in Friuli, below the Carso plateau, and threw itself at the enemy on the ridge above. The general staff expected to be ‘in Vienna for Christmas’. It was not to be. Over the next two and a half years, the Italians got nowhere near Trieste, let alone Vienna. Italy’s offensives clawed some 30 kilometres of ground – mostly in the first fortnight – at a cost of 900,000 dead and wounded. The epicentre of violence was the Isonzo valley, at the eastern end of the front. In Italy, the names Isonzo and Carso still resonate like the Somme, Passchendaele, Gallipoli or Stalingrad.
In autumn 1917, with German help, the Austro-Hungarians drove the Italians back almost to Venice. It was the biggest territorial reverse of any battle during the war, and the gravest threat to the Kingdom of Italy since unification. A year later, the Italians defeated Austria- Hungary in battle for the first time. Europe’s last continental empire collapsed. This is the story of that crisis, recovery and victory.
To the commanders deadlocked on the Western Front, the Italian front was a sideshow, nasty enough but not quite the real thing, waged by armies whose tactics, training and equipment were often second-rate. The Italians reacted to this deprecating attitude in ways that confirmed their Allies’ prejudices. During the war, many Italians felt that their allies undervalued their sacrifice. The sense of neglect lingered afterwards, despite or because of the Fascist regime’s habit of trumpeting Italy’s immortal achievements in the war. British and French indifference was particularly hurtful. A few years ago, two of the country’s finest historians grumbled wryly that ‘Our entire war is viewed from the other side of the Alps with the vaguely racist superficiality that we ourselves reserve for Turks and Bulgarians.’
Outside Italy and the former Habsburg lands, not much has been written about the Italian front, although it was unique in several ways. Alone among the major Allies, Italy claimed no defensive reasons for fighting. It was an open aggressor, intervening for territory and status. The Italians were more divided over the war than any other people. 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 would blend and harden into a national alloy. The greater the sacrifice, the higher the dividends. Not surprisingly, it was a conviction that made no sense to the great majority. This is the story of that conviction: who held it, and who paid for it.
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. Italy mobilised the same number of men as mainland Britain, and executed at least three times as many. No other army routinely punished entire units by ‘decimation’, executing randomly selected men. Only the Italian government treated its captured soldiers as cowards or defectors, blocking the delivery of food and clothing from home. Over 100,000 of the 600,000 Italian prisoners of war died in captivity – a rate nine times worse than for Habsburg captives in Italy. Statistically, it was more dangerous for the infantry to be taken prisoner than to stay alive on the front line.
Finally, Italy’s situation after the war was like none of the other victors’. While the war did complete Italy’s unification, it was disastrous for the nation. Apart from its cost in human life, the war discredited Italy’s liberal institutions, leading to their overthrow by the world’s first fascist state. Benito Mussolini’s self-styled ‘trenchocracy’ would rule for twenty years, with a regime that claimed the Great War was the foundation of Italy’s greatness. For many veterans, Mussolini’s myth gave a positive meaning to terrible experience. This is the story of how the Italians began to lose the peace when their laurels were still green.
‘Italians! Go back!’
Nobody who hasn’t seen it
’: Barbour, 14 May 1917. See also Dalton, 6.
We kill each other like this
’: Carlo Salsa, quoted by Bianchi .
the patterns of collusion
: Ashworth offers evidence that the ‘live and let live system’ emerged on the Western and Eastern Fronts, the Italian front and at Salonika, but not at Gallipoli. (Ashworth, 210–13.) Bianchi  gives examples from the Italian front.