|FABER & FABER|
the guardian Fri 29 August 2008
The Italian front, often regarded as a sideshow, saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the first world war. A million men perished in what Ernest Hemingway called "the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery" of the conflict. According to another witness, Italian troops advancing shoulder-to-shoulder on Austrian trenches high on the Dolomites and the Julian Alps, their officers leading with drawn swords, looked as though they were attempting mass suicide. On several occasions, in gestures of mercy unique to this front, Austrian machine-gunners simply ceased fire. "Stop, go back!" they shouted, as the Italians tried to clamber over mounds of their fallen comrades. "We won't shoot any more. Do you want everyone to die?"
That certainly seemed to be the purpose of the Italian supreme commander, General Luigi Cadorna, whose homicidal endeavours extended to adopting the Roman punishment of decimation. This was the execution of one man in 10 (though Cadorna did not insist on that ratio) selected from units deemed to have shown a lack of pluck and dash. The shootings were carried out much as Hemingway described them in A Farewell to Arms. When one soldier in a batch of condemned men protested his innocence and said that he was the father of seven children, the divisional commander retorted: "Let us be done with this jabbering. Shoot them at once. Orders are orders."
Cadorna's orders were meant to terrorise his troops into unflinching obedience - like Stalin, he further encouraged them to go over the top by mounting machine-guns behind his own lines to fire on stragglers. But he was also anxious to demonstrate his own military virility, his implacable will to win. Proud, silent and aloof, surrounded by obsequious staff officers far from the guns, he projected an image of serene confidence. But he had no idea, apart from hurling his armies at bullets and barbed wire, how to break the military deadlock, and his progress was measured in vertical centimetres. If Field Marshal Douglas Haig - in Lloyd George's phrase - was brilliant to the top of his boots, Cadorna's brilliance never rose above his spurs.
Yet, as emerges from Mark Thompson's magnificent history of a struggle conducted amid snow, cloud and crag, Italy got the general it deserved. Hailed as Duce well before Mussolini monopolised that title, Cadorna embodied the sacred egoism of the fatherland. This was the quasi-fascist spirit of aggression that had plunged Italy into the war in 1915, when it joined the apparently triumphant allies in order to "redeem" its "natural" mountain frontiers. Nationalists were not just bent on grabbing land for mercenary reasons, as Winston Churchill assumed when he dubbed Italy "the harlot of Europe". They wanted a human sacrifice to save their country's soul. As one of Cadorna's corps commanders said, the massacre of infantry was a beneficent purge, "a necessary holocaust".
Thompson is wonderfully scathing about such necrophile nonsense, expressed most deliriously by the poet D'Annunzio and the Futurist Marinetti. They and their followers rejoiced in the vision of blood "spurting from the veins of Italy". They glorified war as "the world's only hygiene". They welcomed the prospect of mass destruction and rape: "We shall ransack the mothers' wombs with fire." And they damned the ideals of liberalism, socialism and democracy, which was fit only for "democretins". D'Annunzio, who compared the experience of battle to an orgasm, played a characteristically vicious role in the conflict, once ordering batteries to fire on a column of his compatriots who had been taken prisoner.
He also penned odes to Cadorna, contributing to a chorus of journalistic praise that helped to keep him in command despite his failures. Admittedly, criticism was difficult because of the all-pervading censorship, enshrined in a decree banning "false news" - ie the truth. This permitted the authorities not only to imprison Colonel Douhet, the prophet of air power, for exposing the supreme commander as a military primitive, but to arrest Neapolitan newsboys for shouting about Italian losses. The press also censored itself, cravenly but profitably participating in an elaborate system of official lying. The Corriere della Sera virtually acted as a ministry of information, with reporters drafting Cadorna's bulletins.
The clerk guilty of the greatest treason was its star reporter, Luigi Barzini, who witnessed the full horror of the war but dramatised it as a heroic adventure. He complained privately: "We are lurching from one disastrous action to the next, massacring whole divisions without inflicting equal damage on the enemy." Yet in print he hailed the supreme commander as a strategic genius whose theory of the offensive was irrefutable. It was much easier, Barzini assured his readers, "to attack uphill against dominant positions than downhill against dominated positions". Disgusted soldiers responded appropriately, using newspapers, as one wrote, "to wipe their arses". One propagandist who visited them at the front was awarded a bronze medal for valour and subsequently, wits quipped, a silver medal for his courage in accepting it - the same joke was later made about Mussolini's son-in-law, Ciano.
The organised mendacity was designed, among other things, to conceal the fact that Italy, the least of the great powers, was entirely unprepared to take part in the great war. The nation had been jockeyed into the conflict by its reactionary premier, Antonio Salandra, with the connivance of the contemptible little king, Victor Emmanuel III. Its conscript army consisted mainly of peasants in uniform, at first lacking leather boots, iron helmets, warm greatcoats and waterproof capes. The army also lacked heavy artillery, high explosive, machine guns and aircraft, to say nothing of flame-throwers and poison gas, which the Austrians used to ghastly effect. Italian wire-cutters were little more than secateurs. And the absence of rock drills meant that they could not dig trenches in the Carso, the harsh limestone plateau overlooking the Isonzo river, where shell-bursts erupted like volcanoes.
Food, too, was in short supply and Italian troops increasingly resembled emaciated scarecrows. When the Austrians counter-attacked in 1917 at Caporetto, where officers such as Erwin Rommel used new methods of infiltration, bypassing and cutting off strong points in anticipation of the blitzkrieg, Italian forces suffered a catastrophic defeat. Nearly 700,000 men were killed, wounded, captured or scattered. Italy lost ground containing 1.5 million people, thousands of whom starved to death under Austrian rule. Vittorio Orlando's new government dismissed Cadorna, who blamed the disaster on the ignominious faint-heartedness of Italian troops. But his replacement, Armando Diaz, stabilised the situation, abolished decimation, restored morale and led Italy to a belated victory as the central powers collapsed in 1918.
D'Annunzio famously spoke of a "mutilated victory". This was because Italy, despite gaining territory in the Tyrol and Dalmatia at the peace settlement, did not receive the spoils its epic bloodletting was thought to deserve. Mussolini was to play with diabolical skill on his countrymen's bitterness at what seemed to them a monstrous allied betrayal. He exploited something akin to a psychology of defeat. He drew mystical inspiration and political vitality from the carnage. As D'Annunzio put it: "Where masses of slaughtered flesh decompose, here sublime fermentations are born." Thus fascism sprang fully armed from the ashes of the great war. And the new Duce mobilised legions of its dead. Where allied war memorials spoke of peace, Mussolini constructed funereal fortresses like that on Monte Grappa. With commemorative tablets resembling gun ports, it was a quintessential emblem of fascist belligerence.
Thompson's account of all this is original, masterly and definitive. He has not only read everything about the subject, he has also tramped the battlefields and talked to centenarian survivors. His descriptions of the gore, guts and filth of attrition in a petrified wilderness are vivid and terrible. His character sketches are penetrating and precise. His judgments are incisive. He is particularly good on literary aspects of the war, delicately anatomising, for example, the work of Italy's foremost war poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti, which "burst like starlight from violence".
Perhaps Thompson's indictment of Italian military incompetence is too relentless. But nothing is more illuminating than his contrast between the modern British memory of the great war as a pointless shambles, and recollections in Italy, where it is seen as an expression of the most glorious qualities of the united nation. Rome's Museum of the Risorgimento displays this legend: "Splendid Italy, binding herself forever in sacrifice." Like Hemingway, we are embarrassed by words such as sacred and sacrifice, and reckon "the things that were glorious had no glory".
· Piers Brendon's The Decline and Fall of the British Empire is published by Cape.