Tragedy of Errors: John Gooch’s The Italian Army and the First World War

Gooch, John. The Italian Army and the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

As any historian of the First World War will tell you, all fronts are not created equal. This applies just as much to historiographical attention as it does to strategic weight, so when I discovered the Armies of the Great War series from Cambridge University Press, I was particularly interested in John Gooch’s installment covering the Italian forces. As a British Imperial historian, I am of course very familiar with Britain’s Great War and, to a lesser extent, France’s and the Ottoman’s, and our Concerning History book club on Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished introduced me in greater detail to Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their opponent Russia’s war, but I knew virtually nothing about the Allies’ erstwhile Mediterranean partner beyond the broad strokes of its participation. Little did I know how unpleasant correcting that state affairs might be.

None of that unpleasantness can be attributed to The Italian Army and the First World War itself, however. Gooch does a fantastic job of laying out his narrative in approachable prose that initiates to the subject (myself among them) can mostly follow while at the same time not sacrificing any of the historical rigor of diving deep into sources both literary and statistical. While broadly sticking to the scope of his title (the Italian Navy, for example, is only occasionally mentioned in passing), Gooch also interprets his mandate broadly, admirably conducting readers through Italy’s political and military traditions, colonial (mis)adventures in Ethiopia and Libya, and international diplomacy in the decades leading up the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. While it cannot quite stand on its own as a general history of Italy’s involvement, it certainly does a serviceable job while I search for one.

What all that context and detailed military history does, however, is paint a picture of appalling dysfunction, incompetence, hubris, and deliberate cruelty. With by far the weakest economy of all major belligerents and still reeling from its Libyan quagmire, Italy found itself unable to field anything approaching a modern army in 1914, and would both betray the Triple Alliance and delay its entry until 1915 largely due to this sorry state of affairs. When it did declare war on Austria-Hungary (but not on Germany), a mutual contempt and lack of communication between her civilian and military leadership led to ineffective use of resources, all while Italy’s generals believed the only way to strengthen her armies was to practice draconian discipline, including widespread execution of soldiers without trial and even indiscriminate retaliation against offenders’ larger units. Afraid of losing what soldiers it could muster to the allure of enemy captivity, Italy even refused to support Italian prisoners of war held in Austria as a matter of policy, preferring such “cowards” to suffer–which in turn generated horror stories of imprisonment that would deter soldiers from surrendering in the future. Gooch admirably presents all these mistakes, flaws, and atrocities in stark detail, avoiding the trap of making his subject nation the protagonist of its own story. Only in the final months of the war would any of these problems begin to be fixed as, out of Italy’s disastrous defeat at the Battle of Caporetto, new leadership would bring some measure of modern organization and coordination to her military.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of Gooch’s work is that, for all its technical excellence, such a tragic yet fascinating narrative can seem somewhat dry. I was disappointed in particular to find very little description of the actual experience of the Italian forces’ unique experience of fighting in mountainous, Alpine terrain. Much reference is made to alpini units or assaulting and defending entrenchments on literal mountains, but what exactly that involved or looked like is left largely to the reader’s imagination. With supplementary material (or deft Internet research skills), however, this deficiency can be duly overcome, and for those interested in expanding their knowledge of such an expansive conflict, The Italian Army and the First World War is a fantastic entry point into such an oft-overlooked front.

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