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The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 Hardcover – March 17, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Hundreds of thousands of men are fed into a meat grinder in futile charges against entrenched positions; opposing armies are forging a weird sense of camaraderie as they fraternize during lulls in the slaughter; and rows of rotting corpses are scattered over a bleak, pockmarked landscape. But this isn’t the familiar western front in France. Rather, these stark images are part of a stunning and emotionally wrenching account of war between Austria and Italy over the disputed terrain they both claimed. Although the struggle was recounted in the writings of Ernest Hemingway, the Italian front was regarded as a sideshow by many European journalists as well as Allied war planners. Whatever the strategic value of the campaign, Thompson illustrates that this was a massive, epic struggle that may have cost a million lives. He crafts a narrative rich in detail and which does not shrink from describing the horrors of a war that began, on the Italian side, in a spasm of wild nationalistic fervor but quickly degenerated into resigned cynicism. This is a masterful and moving chronicle. --Jay Freeman


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.”

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.’”

Peter Popham, Independent
“Thompson’s book is beautifully written, and he skillfully interweaves vivid accounts of military progress with telling vignettes about the more extraordinary figures caught up in the fighting.”

The Washington Times
“[Thompson’s] writing is so vivid, so detailed, so sobering that a reader must take an occasional break from the horrors he describes.”

Newark Star-Ledger
“[A] gripping, superbly written account…”

Michigan War Studies Review
“This is no ordinary work of military history…. Thompson’s narrative strategies make for an engaging, powerful book…. [A] richly textured account of a people and its army at war.”

MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History
“[A] memorable work…. [A] riveting description of World War I’s forgotten front.”

H-Net Reviews
“[I]lluminating…. [B]oth historians and general audiences with interest in the First World War will benefit from Thompson’s study as a contribution toward a more comprehensive, diverse picture of the war than the one to which most western readers are accustomed.”

Military Review
“This narrative of that frostbitten war draws from the work of generations of historians and writers (among them Ernest Hemingway) but gleans vignettes that display the passions of the time and the difficulty of changing a strategy mired in repeated failure.”

Journal of Military History
“Thompson writes well and his narrative flows smoothly and easily. He has the novelist’s ability to capture a character in a phrase, and produces some telling snapshots: Lloyd George’s ‘silver tongue’ and Clemenceau’s ‘salty charisma’ stand out.”

“[A] stunning account of repeated failure and despair, incompetence and opportunism; a human tragedy all too easily entered upon and pursued. In addition to sustained accounts of military engagements, there are vivid portraits of key figures, notably D’Annunzio and Mussolini.”


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (March 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465013295
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465013296
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #736,656 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

69 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Michael Buck on April 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It has been a privilege to read in the past year two sweeping, magisterial accounts of a sadly forgotten front, the Italian front in world war I. Last year i read the wonderfully detailed, blow by blow account by John Schindler, Isonzo the Forgotten Sacrifice and i loved it. I would have given it more then 5 stars if i could have. This year a second monumental work has come out. Mark Thompson's The White War is a triumph of artistic prose. This book goes into detail of the spirit, psyche, and morale of the Italian army and its people, as well as covering the Isonzo, Asiago, Ortigaro, and Dolomite fronts in good detail. This wonderful volume in tandem with Schindler's classic account are the two books to read on this front. Reading here about the savagery of Luigi Cadorna's command style, the duplicity of Antonio Salandra and Sidney Soninno, and the sheer lust for war embodied by the likes of Gabriele D'Annunzio, Benito Mussolini, Scipio Slataper and other paragons of early 20th century Italian history and culture are mind boggling in this day and age to comprehend. Contrasting sadly is the stoicism and heroic but silent sacrifices made by the men of the army, slaughtered for a few meters of blood soaked ground, usually in the rocky desolate Carso plateau, or the taking of an insignificant hill or rocky precipice at the cost of thousands of lives. The cost of all this was 700,000 Italian lives and over a million wounded. Austrian casualties were roughly half this number. The civilian dead was over half a million more. The bloodletting was savage and amazing, the gains trivial by comparison. In the end, Austria was destroyed, the Slavic nation state of Yugoslavia was born, and the Italians felt cheated by their own allies leading to the rise of Mussolini dominated Fascist Italy.Read more ›
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By John on September 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I have just finished reading "The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1918 by Mark Thompson which is a study of a 1st World War front that is often forgotten but where Italy lost 689, 000 solders( Britain lost 662,000 + 140, 000 reported as missing). That we tend to associate the infantry war with the plains of Flanders and Russia reveals the common myth as this part of the struggle was mountain warfare albeit also with trenches.

The conduct of the war exposed the weak hold of liberal structures and politics on the Italian population and the defeat of victory quickly let in 20 years of fascist government. The collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and take over the successor national states by the communists has made it difficult to get a sense of what really went on: Italians and other non Germanic nationals did fight for the Emperor, many of the feature of Fascism (a puppet parliament, a muzzled press, a romantic nationalism, a militarised state) had their roots on the political conduct of the war.

What made the book an interesting read is that Mark Thomas does more then hold to the historical arc of the events from the turmoil in Italy leading to its ripping up of a long standing agreement to be allied with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary ( It took on a secret 30 pieces of silver territorial deal with the Allies). And ending with the desperate mad dash to occupy land vacated by the collapsing Hapsburg armies-it made the most of the cock-up where as the armistice agreement ended the war one day earlier for Austria-Hungary. What he does is switch the narrative in cinematographic terms from wide/long shots, medium to close-ups as the narrative unfolds.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By R. A Forczyk VINE VOICE on September 7, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Although the First World War has attracted greater attention from historians in the past decade or so, the events on the Italian front are still extremely obscure to English-speaking audiences. Mark Thompson's The White War sets out to illuminate the reasons why Italy went to war with Austria-Hungary in 1915, what it hoped to gain and how it went about trying to gain these objectives. This is not a straight-up military history, although individual battles and actions are discussed in some detail. Rather, the author tries to examine the war through Italian lenses and provides broad nuances that are critical to understanding the political, social and intellectual factors underpinning the war. The title refers to the Carso region along the Isonzo River, marked by towering mountains capped with snow, where much of the fighting took place. Overall, parts of the book are brilliantly written, while some other parts are probably too divergent for readers expecting something like a military history. In terms of analysis, the author delivers some very pithy commentary, far from the rhetoric of official histories.
The White War consists of 28 sequential chapters and one appendix, with a total of 405 pages of text. The book has only six maps, which are of little use since they show only limits of advance, some of the key objectives and general dispositions of Italian armies. There are also 30 B/W photos, some interesting, some not. The author also provides 17 pages of footnotes, a lengthy bibliography and an index. Readers might want to read the appendix first, which covers the failed Italian participation in the Seven Weeks War in 1866, which really set the stage for their declaration of war in 1915.
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