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The White War, By Mark Thompson

Farewell to arms, but hello to Fascism

It is extraordinary that nobody has written a narrative history of Italy's Great War in English before. For this was not a minor sideshow in the First World War: Italy entered it more or less gratuitously, without the imperatives of survival that animated the other combatants, and was duly sneered at in London and Paris for being both venally calculating and lacking in military fervour. But once it got stuck into the vertiginous task of trying to dislodge the Austro-Hungarian empire from its strongholds high in the Alps, its soldiers began learning inch by inch the same lessons about barbed wire, trenches, grenades, poison gas, cretinous leadership and jingo journalists as were being learned hundreds of miles to the north in Flanders.

As in the rest of Europe, the industrialised savagery of the war laid the beastly foundations for the rest of the 20th century. Yet Italy, though late to the fray and late also to the vicious games of nationalism, had in important ways anticipated those lessons. In the grotesque demagogue Gabriele D'Annunzio, one of several anti-heroes in Mark Thompson's marvellous book, modern warfare had found its pornographer and prophet. With the Italian invention of Futurism in 1909, the lust for blood, speed and annihilation exhibited in D'Annunzio's works went on to infect painting, design and architecture, too. Nor did the cruelty and misery of the war bring Italy to its senses. On the contrary, the humiliations inflicted by the Central Powers and the perceived insults at Versailles led swiftly and directly to the rise of Mussolini and the creation of Fascism.

Thompson's book is beautifully written, and he skilfully interweaves vivid accounts of military progress with telling vignettes about the more extraordinary figures caught up in the fighting: from the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, Italy's answer to Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg, to the precociously brilliant German Lieutenant Rommel; from Ernest Hemingway, whose A Farewell to Arms sprang from his brief experience as a volunteer ambulance driver at the front, to the miserable General Luigi Cadorna, Italy's supreme commander, who serenely presided over one fiasco after another until the ultimate debacle of Caporetto, which led to his demise. On the other side of the Alps, "doing a Cadorna" "became British soldiers' slang," Thompson writes, for "perpetrating an utter fuck-up and paying the price."

The shambles at Caporetto, in which tens of thousands of Italians threw away their rifles and surrendered without a struggle, cemented their reputation as "a wretched people, useless as fighting men", in the words of General Haig. But The White War reveals how unjust the stereotype was. Despite leadership that was out-of-date, sluggish and sadistic – the Roman practice of decimation, shooting one soldier in ten as punishment for insubordinate behaviour, was re-introduced by Cadorna – millions of Italians fought like lions at the war's most impossible front.

"Imagine the flat or gently rolling horizon of Flanders," Thompson writes, "tilting at 30 or 40 degrees, made of grey limestone that turns blinding white in summer". Throughout the war, the Italians were at the bottom, the Austrians at the top. Those who had the apparent good fortune to be captured by the enemy often died of starvation: alone among the combatants, Italy refused to send food parcels to POWs, believing that to do so would encourage more to surrender.

If Italian war fever was stoked by the ravings of D'Annunzio and the mendacious reporting of Luigi Barzini for Corriere della Sera, the unspeakable brutality had the same paradoxical effect as in Flanders, of stimulating great literary art. The greatest, however, did not like its British equivalent condemn the war, but distilled from the hell minimalistically mystical perceptions such as those of Ungaretti. They still sound modern today: "In this gloom/ with frozen/ fingers/ making out/ my face... I see myself/ abandoned in endlessness."

Peter Popham is Rome correspondent of 'The Independent'