Friday, August 8, 2014

The White War

I have just finished reading The White War, a book about the Italian Front during WWI. The only word that comes to mind is wow. The Italians sent roughly the same amount of men into the fight as Britain, yet executed far more of them. Their military justice system made a mockery of its name, they did not send any food or supplies to their POWs (and actually blocked any items sent by family), ruthlessly suppressed dissent at the home front, got most of what they wanted in the post-war settlement, and were still not satisfied. If any nation could be said to have fought the First World War ignobly, then Italy is it.

Italy's entry into the war was inauspicious. They took bids from both sides and once they determined the Allies could give them more of what they wanted (the Trentino region in Northern Italy, with the possibility of Tyrol), the Italians threw in their lot with Britain, France, and Russia. This attitude extended into the war itself. The Italians were more than happy to accept Allied aid, but bristled at any attempt by the Allies to ask for simultaneous offensives.

Beyond the nakedly mercenary aims of the Italian war (in contrast to every other belligerent, who claimed self-defense), the Italian army was in no way ready to fight even Austria. Their command structure was antiquated, their arms were lacking, and their doctrine (full frontal charges) was especially unsuited to mountain warfare. The Italian forces did improve throughout the war, especially once Cadorna was sacked after the Capporetto debacle and once Allied equipment and soldiers began to arrive from the Western Front.

Based on Italian performance in the Second World War, it is no surprise that Italian equipment and command were not great, but what is surprising is the sheer brutality that the Italians displayed. Here are some examples:
  • The Italians set up blocking units, similar to those used by the Soviet Union. This meant that any Italians that tried to retreat against orders were machine-gunned by Italian troops. In contrast, British blocking stations merely ensured the men were returned to their lines. 
  • One man was executed for saluting an officer while smoking a cigar
  • When the Austrians occupied part of Northern Italy late in the war, the Italians refused entry to the refugees (Italian citizens!) because they made good cover for spies, and they would cost the Austrians resources trying to feed them.
Finally, the Italians actually tried to wrestle parts of the Dalmatian coast away from Yugoslavia after the war, which the Allies prevented.

In sum, the Italians were technically a Great Power, but no one took this seriously except the Italian leadership.

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