The White War

Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919


By Mark Thompson

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In May 1915, Italy declared war on the Habsburg Empire. Nearly 750,000 Italian troops were killed in savage, hopeless fighting on the stony hills north of Trieste and in the snows of the Dolomites. To maintain discipline, General Luigi Cadorna restored the Roman practice of decimation, executing random members of units that retreated or rebelled.

With elegance and pathos, historian Mark Thompson relates the saga of the Italian front, the nationalist frenzy and political intrigues that preceded the conflict, and the towering personalities of the statesmen, generals, and writers drawn into the heart of the chaos. A work of epic scale, The White War does full justice to the brutal and heart-wrenching war that inspired Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.




1 Prime Minister Antonio Salandra

2 Baron Sidney Sonnino

3 Gabriele D'Annunzio (Archivio 'Fotografie storiche della grande guerra' della Biblioteca civica Villa Valle, Valdagno, image no. 0087)

4 Benito Mussolini in 1915 (Mary Evans Picture Library)

5 General Cadorna visiting British batteries in spring 1917 (Museo Storico Italiano della Guerra, Rovereto, photo no. 8/2892)

6 Mount Mrzli (MSIG, 94/19)

7 Austro-Hungarian troops on the Carso

8 View from Mount San Michele to Friuli

9 Trieste and its port in 1919

10 A farming family in Friuli

11 Approaching Gorizia

12 View from Mount San Michele to the River Isonzo

13 The relief

14 Mount Tofana and the Castelletto (MSIG, 121/45)

15 Italian second-line camp

16 The 'road of heroes' on Mount Pasubio (MSIG, 124/98


1  Infantry attack on the Carso, 1917 (Imperial War Museum, London, image no. Q 115175

2 Boccioni's 'Unique Forms of Continuity in Space' (1913) (Tate, London)

3 Italian first line on the southern Carso, 1917 (IWM, HU 97058)

4 Emperor Karl and General Boroević (By courtesy of Sergio Chersovani, Gorizia)

5 Italian wounded below Mount San Gabriele

6 Bosnian prisoners of war (IWM, HU 89218)

7 Panoramic view of the Isonzo valley and Mount Krn (MSIG, 94/19a)

8 Italian dead at Flitsch, 24 October 1917 (IWM, Q 23968)

9 Third Army units retreating to the River Piave, early November 1917 (MSIG, 2/450)

10 Italian prisoners of war (IWM, Q 86136)

11 Italian cavalry crossing the River Monticano (MSIG, 107/240)

12 Entering Gorizia, November 1918

13 The Big Four in Paris, 1919 (Mary Evans Picture Library)

14 The Adriatic Sea, from the edge of the Carso 


     Territory promised to Italy by the Allies in April 1915

Front lines, 1915–18

The Carso and the Gorizia sector

The Twelfth Battle (Caporetto), October–November 1917

The Battle of Vittorio Veneto, October–November 1918

Note on Sources

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.


'Italians! Go back!'

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.1 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.


Mark Thompson
February 2008

Source Notes
INTRODUCTION 'Italians! Go back!'

1 'Nobody who hasn't seen it': Barbour, 14 May 1917. See also Dalton, 6.

2 'We kill each other like this': Carlo Salsa, quoted by Bianchi [2001].

3 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 [2001] gives examples from the Italian front.

4 'What do you want, to kill them all?': This witness was Adelmo Reatti. Foresti, Morisi & Resca.

5 'like toads': Salsa, 85.

6 A few weeks earlier: This witness was Bersagliere Giuseppe Garzoni. Bianchi [2001], 356.

7 As the survivors drew close: Lussu, 97–8. This book is a lightly fictionalised memoir, not a journal or a work of scholarship.

8 A Turkish officer: See Patsy Adam-Smith, The Anzacs (West Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1978), Chapter 12.

9 'offered such a target': A German source quoted by Warner, 45.

10 'like a great wall': Wanda Newby, 65.

11 'in Vienna for Christmas': General Porro, deputy supreme commander. De Simone, 202.

12 'Our entire war is viewed': Isnenghi & Rochat, 446.

13 The worst-paid infantry: Schindler, 132.

14 Italy's situation after the war: Giuliano Procacci, 237.

1 Eastern Friuli and Trieste comprised some 3,000 square kilometres. Istria – where no fighting took place, though it was equally an Italian objective – is about 5,000 square kilometres. South Tyrol, comprising what Italians called the Trentino and Alto Adige, has 13,600 square kilometres.



A Mania for Expansion

My Native Land! I See the Walls, the Arches, 
The columns and the statues, and the lone
Ancestral towers; but where,
I ask, is all the glory?

    LEOPARDI, 'To Italy' (1818)


Europe before the First World War was rackety and murderous, closer in its statecraft to the Middle East or central Asia than today's docile continent, where inter-state affairs filter through committees in Brussels.1 It was marked by the epic formation of two large states. When Germany emerged in the 1860s, Italy had taken shape in a process of unification called the Risorgimento or 'revival'. Led by Piedmont, a little kingdom with its capital at Turin, the Risorgimento merged two kingdoms, the statelets controlled by the Pope, a grand duchy, and two former provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

By 1866, the Italian peninsula was unified except for Papal Rome and Venetia, the large northern province with Venice as its capital. Rome could not be liberated until France withdrew its support for the Pope. Against Austria, however, the Italians found themselves with a mighty ally; Prussia's prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, invited them to attack Austria from the south when he attacked from the north. Italy lost the two decisive battles of the war and won the peace. Austrian Venetia became the Italian Veneto.2 The Italians even gained a fraction of Friuli, but not the Isonzo valley or Trieste.

In the east, the new border ran for 150 kilometres from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea, partly along the courses of the Aussa and the Judrio rivers, hardly more than streams for most of the year. Elsewhere the new demarcation ran across fields, sometimes marked by wire mesh hung with bells. Local people came and went to church or market as they pleased. The customs officers knew which women smuggled tobacco and sugar under their broad skirts, and waved them through all the same. Personal contacts were everything. Austrian border guards looked the other way when Italian nationalists crossed the border for Italian national holidays in Udine or Palmanova. In the language of the day, the new border was cravenly administrative instead of nobly national. It was makeshift and relaxed, not the absolute perimeter that nationalists dreamed of. Even worse, Austria kept control of the high ground from Switzerland to the sea. Trieste, like south Tyrol, remained a dream. 'Is it possible', lamented Giuseppe Mazzini, the father of liberal nationalism, 'that Italy accepts being pointed out as the only nation in Europe that does not know how to fight, the only one that can only receive what belongs to it by benefit of foreign arms and through humiliating concessions by the enemy usurper?' 

The 1866 war could have had a much worse outcome. As Garibaldi, the figurehead of unification, would admit in his memoirs, the alliance with Prussia 'proved useful to us far beyond our deserts'. The legendary warrior heaped contempt on the regular army commanders, whose arrogance and ignorance had negated Italy's massive advantage in strength and dumped the nation 'in a cesspit of humiliation'. And it was Garibaldi who said the best that could be said of the campaign: Italians from all over the peninsula had joined forces for the first time. This was a landmark in national history, though it could not outweigh the military failure, which bequeathed the young kingdom a complex that the Italians could not win anything for themselves. For decades afterwards, foreign leaders winked at Italy's diplomatic achievements: they had to lose badly to make any gains!

The nation's leaders yearned for spectacular victories to expunge the bitter memory of those defeats in 1866. The army was in no condition to provide such solace, even after the command structure was amended on Prussian lines in the 1870s. This thirst for great-power status led to defeats in Ethiopia in 1887 and 1896, and the pointless occupation of Libya in 1911. King Victor Emanuel II's refusal to clarify the army command in 1866 led the next generation of commanders to insist on a unified structure with no ambiguities. His determination to exercise his constitutional role as commander-in-chief, despite being wholly unfitted for that role, would deter his grandson, Victor Emanuel III, from holding his own chief of the general staff to account during the Great War.

Then there were the borders. It was well and good to have Venetia, yet Austria's continuing control of the southern Tyrol meant the newly acquired territory was not secure. Venice was still a hostage, for Austrian forces could threaten to pour down the Alpine valleys and swarm over the plains to the sea. The new demarcation in the far northeast was even worse. Patriots denounced it as humiliating, indefensible, and harmful to Friuli's development.3 They quoted Napoleon Bonaparte's remark that the natural demarcation between Austria and Italy lay between the River Isonzo and Laibach (now Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia), taking in parts of Carniola (the Austrian province roughly corresponding to today's Slovenia) and Istria, joining the sea at Fiume (now Rijeka), and his reported comment that the line of the Isonzo was indefensible, hence not worth fortifying. Garibaldi called it an ugly border, and hoped it would soon be moved 150 kilometres eastward.

One of these protesting patriots was Paolo Fambri. Born in Venice, he fought as a volunteer in 1859, became a captain of engineers in the regular army, and then a deputy in parliament and a prolific journalist who ridiculed the new border at every opportunity. Fambri defined the problem by its essentials. What is a border? It may be literal (a river) or symbolic (a pole across a road), but between states with the power and perhaps the will to threaten each other, it must be solid, 'a force and not a formality'. The Alps should serve Italy as its ramparts. Instead, they enclose the country like a wall. As for the new frontier near the Isonzo, 'a more irrational and capricious line was never yet imposed by arrogance or conceded by the most abject weakness'. There was no coherent historical, ethnic, physical, political or military concept behind it. Just as Italy's security in the north was a hostage to the Tyrol, so its security in the east was threatened by three great natural breaches in the Julian Alps: at Tarvis through to Villach (today in southern Austria); at Görz (now Gorizia) and the valley of the River Vipacco (now the Vipava, in Slovenia), through to Laibach; and up the coast from Fiume and Trieste. Italy could not be secure without controlling all this territory, but the chances of a successful pre-emptive attack were 'worse than bad', because the enemy held all the high ground. The Austrians, by contrast, could stroll over the Isonzo and onto the plains of Friuli 'without a care in the world'. Either Austria or Italy could hold all the territory from Trieste to Trent (now Trento), but they could not share it, so the 1866 border could never become stable. 


  • Max Hastings, New York Review of Books
    “Mark Thompson, a young British writer, can claim a notable achievement with his narrative history of Italy?s World War I experience. With authority, sympathy, and unusual literary skill, he illuminates an aspect of the conflict about which some of us feel embarrassed to have known so little. The battlefield saga is sufficiently fascinating, but eclipsed by the portrait of Italy?s social and cultural experience within which the author sets it.... Thompson?s book gives a fascinating, indeed brilliant, portrait of a society immolated by its own delusions.”<

    The Economist (Best Books of the Year)
    “A startling indictment of the Italian state?s conduct during the first world war, which shows how Italy?s nationalist dream of expansion would turn into the Fascist nightmare.”

    John McCourt, Irish Times
    “Brilliant.... In presenting this conflict with such uncompromising focus and detail, Thompson has successfully accomplished a necessarily uncomfortable act of remembrance.... It should be hailed as the best account yet of what Hemingway described as `the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery? of the Great War and of the experiences of the vast majority of Italian soldiers who, in Giovanni Comisso?s words, had little or no knowledge of `what they had done, or why.?”

  • The Weekly Standard
    “[A] study as pioneering as it is brilliant.... Drawing on an impressive array of British, Italian, and Austrian sources, including fascinating interviews with survivors, Thompson re-creates the Italo-Austrian conflict in all its facets.... The White War is the work of a bright young historian proving his mettle.”

    Dallas Morning News
    “Thompson?s book is a comprehensive work following the causes, culture and combat of Italy?s war against Austria-Hungary and Germany.... It?s worthwhile reading and remembering, particularly when trying to comprehend what price victory.”

    Robert Fox, Evening Standard
    “Brilliant.... It is the first general history of the serial incompetence and brutality of the war in north-eastern Italy between 1915 and 1918, which makes it exceptional enough. In its elegant sweep of cultural and political as well as martial themes, it stands alone: it is one of the outstanding history books of the year.”

    Christopher Duggan, Times Literary Supplement
    “Mark Thompson?s wonderfully rich and poignant study, beautifully written and based on a detailed first-hand knowledge of the terrain in question as well as an impressive array of published Italian sources shows graphically why the events of 1915-18 had such a searing effect on the country?s national psyche.”

On Sale
Oct 26, 2010
Page Count
488 pages
Basic Books

Mark Thompson

About the Author

Mark Thompson holds a PhD in Social Sciences from Cambridge. The author of Forging War and A Paper House, he lives in Oxford, England.

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