Blood and snow; Myth and poetry. The White war re-visited.

There are not so many opportunities to find, in the same book, knowledge, literary prowess and entertainment. Historical research, moreover, is prone to lack at least one of the former (not wanting to stir polemics, though, I would not mention which one). But in this particular case you can find all of them, plus accuracy, clear analysing and an overwhelming command of the data. If I ever write a book, I would like it to be as easy reading and well-informed as this one is. And the name of this jewel is “The white war”, the goldsmith being Mark Thompson.

Cover of my copy of the book.
Cover of my copy of the book.

This was true the first time I wrote this, back in 2012, and still is in 2015. Only that now we are engaged in this multi-year WWI following, so some polishing is needed, given the evolution of History as a science and mine as a writer. If interested, you can still find the original article searching in March 2012.

The issue is not very amenable: the Italian front during World War I. But if the tale is told in the way Thompson does, every matter could turn into a fascinating story. This one, in particular, is not only about politics, war, and the usual madness about both. There is more to it, there is life, as a developing creature whose growth is deeply affected by the environment, both social and political, and which is trampled underfoot men’s ambition and ethnic dreams of purity and supremacy. And with life comes everything, even poetry. Now, WWI was a rare event of poets becoming soldiers, or soldiers becoming poets, a case we will study further on in our ongoing work about the conflict. Not that poetry is the thing you first think of in the morning, one guess, when you are in a trench. Probably hunger, lice, fear, or relief would be better options. Yet again, poetry came to soldiers’ minds every so often it seems. At least when they were not killing each other for the sake of frontiers, industrial resources or simple nation pride.

Thompson dedicates a whole chapter here to poets, properly called “Starlight from violence”. In it, we go from Ungaretti’s delicate lyricism, “This morning I lay back/ in an urn of water/ and like a relic/ took my rest” to Govoni’s brutality and joyful aggressiveness, “Burn, burn,/ set fire to this world till it becomes a sun./ Devastate smash destroy,/ go forth, go forth, oh lovely human flail,/ be plague earthquake and hurricane.” Such were the different moods of the soldier on the field of the Isonzo and the civilian prior to Italy’s declaration of war. Sometimes poetry is a kind of note to self. Ungaretti didn’t want to be an officer, desiring not a single privilege from their comrades. So he writes about the soldier’s experience of war: “Struck/ in these guts/ of rubble/ hours and hours/ I dragged/ my bones/ given to mud/ like a boot-sole/ or a seed/ of hawthorn”. Ungaretti was first rejected for active service. When the casualties began to surmount, standards relaxed, so our poet ended up serving two and a half years in the front.

This is, obviously, a story about war. No surprise in that. The Italian front is better known thanks to Hemingway’s contribution in “Farewell to arms”, but all the same is probably the perfect stranger in World War I records. Not as huge but yet as brutal as the Western front, not as epic as Suvla Bay or Anzac Cove but with all the epics that mountain warfare has. Without the wider and deeper political implications that the Eastern front was ready to provide but with connections that extend till the Balkan Wars in the nineties, it is, in fact, a perfect example of the “niceties” of war, and its uselessness, and its long-term political implications.

Thompson explains the misunderstandings and lack of trust between the Allies and Italy, which was part of a treaty with the Central Powers at the beginning of the war. Italy decided the that there was more to gain turning the coat. As it turned out Italy’s sense of self-importance and grievance was nothing but a pebble in the political game of post-war treaties. Wilson was set on achieving his own political (even religious) goals about anti-imperialism and self-determination, and Italy’s territorial claims sounded too much like Mediterranean imperialism. So much bloodletting to so little advantage.

What Thompson achieves better (my own uneasiness aside) is transporting you there, to the center of a nonsensical war theater, but without cruelty, without all the blood and guts so usually found in books of the sort. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of blood when needed, this was, after all, a bloodletting conflict if ever there was one; but the sense of fear, hatred, un-awareness, feebleness, despairing solitude is transported on the back of more solid arguments tan the mere bloodshed. There is analysis here, both of the men’s souls before, during and after the war, and of the circumstances that lead the world to an era of chaos, hatred and destruction which probably has not yet finished as we see in everyday news. In the end you will find that after all, the whim of so few was the damnation of so many. So History goes.

And then, there is myth. Fighting in the mountains, carrying artillery pieces to the summits, caving trenches in the snow. And above all the literary myth, the new men, new order myth was arising and Benito Mussolini was riding it. The seeds for WWII were already sown. Thompson’s depiction of the military cemetery between Gorizia and Monfalcone, at Redipuglia, is chilling and disturbing, knowing the facts. A cyclopean tomb, a shrine to the Third Army, is now the eternal resting place of over 100000 soldiers, built in the place of the original cemetery in which families had created a quiet, secluded place. But that was not enough for the Fascist Heroes, something gigantic, colossal, was needed. In the edges of the terraces, the word PRESENTE, soldier’s reply at roll call. The Fascist martyrs were there, ready to raise and defend their country once again. Lessons learned? Sir, no sir. So Italy will be once again amidst the fraught some years later. And this time the amount of blood and death would be unheard-of.

Now then, if you are to read but one book this year, you will probably would like to try either Kate Morton or The Hobbit or maybe one of those popular Scandinavian detective stories . But, if you want to be enlightened by a book, if you want your conscience awaken, if you want a deeper understanding of what mankind is willing to do to itself, I would keep an eye on “The white war”.

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