How should they remember it?

John Foot

  • The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-19 by Mark Thompson
    Faber, 455 pp, £9.99, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 22334 3

Pinzolo is a sleepy Alpine resort in northern Italy, about an hour’s drive from Trento. Today, it is a prosperous place, living off winter and summer tourism, but for most of the last century this was an area of extreme poverty, and many of those who lived in the valley were forced to emigrate. There is a statue of a knife-grinder in the town, a monument to the job most of these emigrants did, in places as far apart as Sarajevo, Jersey City and Plymouth. The residents speak a mixture of Italian and a local dialect, although the Trentino region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.

Allied to Germany and Austria-Hungary through the Triple Alliance of 1882, Italy initially remained neutral in the First World War, on the grounds that the alliance was a defensive arrangement. Then, on 24 May 1915, it declared war on Austria-Hungary. The decision was taken by the king and a minority of the cabinet, without the approval of parliament, after secret meetings in London at which the Entente powers promised that, in the event of victory, Italy would be able to annex the regions of Austria-Hungary largely populated by Italians. Most Italians were opposed to joining the war, although an organised and violent minority had campaigned vigorously in favour. Five million Italians were called up, and the conflict caused serious strain in a country which had only recently been unified and whose population identified far more with their local village or region than with the nation. Most of the fighting took place around the Isonzo River in the north-east, but the front stretched west through Trentino and Alto Adige, and it was here that what Mark Thompson describes as ‘the white war’ really took place.

The spectacular paths that lead to the mountain refuges high above Pinzolo were built to serve the front line on the peaks above – in some places it was more than 3500 metres high – and used by thousands of soldiers, mules and porters. Signs of the war haven’t disappeared: barbed wire is strewn on the rocks; there are small makeshift cemeteries with little stone crosses. The refuges themselves were built as barracks. One peak boasts a small Orthodox church, built by Russian prisoners of war who were forced to work here by the Austrians. The ice above Pinzolo has been melting with great speed in recent years, uncovering huge underground tunnels and shacks, abandoned during or after the war. Bodies are still being discovered and buried – with full military honours – in the cemetery in the village. Explosives still turn up, and controlled detonations are often heard in the summer months.

Two years ago, near the biggest mountain above Pinzolo, an extraordinary discovery was made. Climbers came across a barracks area cut into the rock which had been known as the Caverna di Cavento. Carefully melting the ice, local experts and historians slowly uncovered a place inhabited by soldiers nearly ninety years before. There were blankets, newspapers, a stove, sunglasses and helmets, beds and a latrine. The site was more or less intact, preserved by the cold. A lock was put on the door, but this year thieves broke in and stole some of the things that had been left there.

In Pinzolo, and on its mountains, the First World War is still just about a living event, on the cusp between history and memory. For years, local collectors have been bringing material down from the mountains. Many items were kept; other stuff was sold for scrap or to professional collectors. On some peaks, huge cannons still point into the distance. It is almost impossible to imagine how they were dragged up the mountain. Some of them were brought down by villagers after the war, and used as memorials. Pinzolo has one, with a revealing inscription beside the names of the war dead: ‘Forced to take up arms for the oppressor’. Most of the men from this region who died in the First World War were called up to the Austrian army in 1914, with the greatest number of casualties on the Russian front. Some were also to return to fight against the Italian army in what became, at times, a form of civil war.

Over the next three and a half years, nearly 600,000 soldiers in the Italian army would die, and many thousands would be terribly injured. As a proportion of the population, these casualties were higher than Great Britain’s. Many Italian towns and villages were destroyed and thousands of people made homeless. Italian military justice was especially harsh. Since there was no great enthusiasm for the war (and a fair amount of open opposition), the tactic adopted by the generals was to terrify the troops into fighting. It isn’t known how many soldiers were executed, some through the practice of decimation, as an example to the others. By the end of the war, something like a million military trials had taken place – a figure that makes clear the failure of the harsh regime adopted by General Cadorna, commander-in-chief of the army until 1917.

Cadorna’s leadership ended with the debacle of Caporetto, a town on the Isonzo River, now part of Slovenia, in October 1917. The Austrians broke through Italian lines there and advanced towards Venice. Hundreds of thousands of Italians were taken prisoner, and many more abandoned their arms. In the chaos, the Italians regrouped on the banks of the Piave River and dug in. The military authorities tried to encourage their troops by promising them land, bread and – eventually – peace. Refugees flooded out of the occupied zones and fled from the cities close to the new front line. The apocalyptic aftermath of defeat was described by Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms, where he wrote that ‘war is not won by victory.’ The writer Carlo Emilio Gadda, who took part in the chaotic retreat and was imprisoned for months by the Austrians, wrote at the time that ‘my moral life is over’ and later said: ‘The shame of the defeat became increasingly strong. I think about history: I will be placed among the dishonourable.’ Cadorna was replaced by General Armando Diaz and a vast patriotic effort on the home front began, with the aim of preventing further encroachments into Italy, invaded for the first time since unification. The fact that the Italian army was able to reorganise and win a victory at the Battle of the Piave River in June 1918 (thanks in part to the internal collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies) could not wipe away the shame of Caporetto. Fare caporetto came to mean ‘to run away quickly’ and Caporetto became a synonym for ‘disaster’. The defeat crystallised the divisions over the war, and gave birth to stereotypes about Italian soldiers that haven’t quite faded away even now.

The Battle of Vittorio Veneto, close to the Piave River, brought a final Italian victory and the end of the Austro-Hungarian army – indeed, the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself. An armistice was signed on 3 November 1918, but the celebrations were muted: Italy had lost hundreds of thousands of men for very little extra land, and the idea that it had been a ‘mutilated victory’, in the words of the nationalist writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, soon took hold. Nationalists and socialists fought over the interpretation of the events of the war, and over who should be held responsible for Caporetto; these divisions were to lead to the rise of Fascism and the end of Italian democracy. Italians clashed violently in the streets over the war and how it should be remembered, but also over the future of their country. The Fascist view prevailed and was able to impose a heroic interpretation of the war itself. In the 1930s the regime erected numerous monuments to the war, including a series of gigantic sacrari on the battlefields. After Mussolini’s fall, these monuments – sometimes (but not always) shorn of their more explicitly Fascist symbols – continued to be used to commemorate the war.

Mark Thompson’s account in The White War combines a fine sense of the military aspects of the conflict with a measured analysis of its cultural, social, political and anthropological implications. The war is viewed from both above and below. We meet the journalists who fabricated heroic accounts of the slaughter, as well as poets, writers (including Gadda) and ordinary soldiers. Thompson’s chapters on the interminable battles around the Isonzo River are illuminating and, at times, shocking. He has a good grasp of the mass of material now available on the conflict, but this never impedes the narrative flow of the book. There is, however, too little about the crucial Trentino front, where the real ‘white war’ took place in the mountains above Pinzolo, and where Italians on opposing sides of the conflict fought against each other. Not enough attention is paid to Cesare Battisti, a socialist from the Trentino who fought on the side of Italy, and was executed by Austria as a traitor in July 1916, one of Italy’s two most important war heroes. The other, Enrico Toti, a one-legged volunteer who is said to have died while throwing his crutch at the Austrians in August 1916, doesn’t even get a mention, despite the hundreds of streets named after him all over Italy.

Many stories from the war never made it into the official accounts. In June 1916, in the village of Cercivento in the province of Udine in north-east Italy, a military trial was held for a hundred soldiers who had refused to obey an order to attack. At 4.58 a.m. on 1 July, four of these men were tied to chairs and shot in the back by a firing squad. Eighty years later people from the town put up a simple monument to the men, one of the first of its kind in Europe. Other countries have since made official amends, but in Italy the Cercivento monument remains an exception to the rule. When a relative asked for a pardon for his great-uncle, who was among those shot there, he was told by an official that such a request could be made only by the soldier himself.