A Soldier on the Southern Front

A Soldier on the Southern Front
The Classic Italian Memoir of World War I
Emilio Lussu, with a foreword by Mark Thompson, translated by Gregory Conti   Rizzoli  256pp  £16.95

The Italian Army and the First World War
John Gooch   Cambridge University Press  398pp   £19.99

Emilio Lussu led an extraordinary life. Born into a wealthy family in Sardinia, he was studying law when Italy entered the First World War in 1915. As a convinced Italian nationalist, he volunteered for the army and was sent to the front. His experiences of the war were shocking and transformational. He fought bravely for a brigade of Sardinian soldiers, winning four medals, and after the conflict became a convinced anti-fascist and fought for the rights of ex-combatants. Forced into exile by the regime, he decided to write about his war experiences in the late 1930s. What emerged was one of the classics of war literature, which only appeared in Italy in 1945, but has been in print ever since. 

A Soldier on the Southern Front, appearing here in a new translation and with an elegant introduction by Mark Thompson, is a magnificent, angry, ironic account of a year of trench warfare, which still packs the same punch as it did 70 years ago. Lussu takes apart the army hierarchy by depicting them as vicious bureaucrats, or pompous psychopaths. One officer – General Leone – is a grotesque and terrifying figure, willing to sacrifice his own men at the drop of a hat. The descriptions of battle scenes are vivid and realistic and we enter into the rhythm of the war, with its long pauses punctuated by moments of chaotic massacre. Lussu never lets the officer class off the hook and uses black humour to undermine their authority and power. He also makes clear how unprepared Italy was for a war of this kind. Many scenes smack of farce: ordinary soldiers are forced to don elaborate armour that gives them no protection against the Austrian guns, or simply told to walk towards certain death, uphill, into machine gun fire.

Lussu’s use of minute descriptions of locations – hills, trenches, battles – and names that can easily identify the people they describe (Thompson names them all in the introduction) gives the prose a realistic feel, despite the fact that it was written 20 years after the events it narrates and with the hindsight provided by Fascism and its exaltation of the supposed beauty and heroism of war. Lussu’s army is one fuelled by alcohol and alcoholism, where many soldiers and lower-level officers see the ‘real enemy’ as their own generals. In one unforgettable scene everyone stands by as the arrogant General appears to face certain death from enemy fire. They are all hoping for the same outcome, but the General (of course) escapes yet again. Yet, this is not simply an anti-war book. Lussu understands the complexity of conflict, the loyalties and friendships which bound together the Sardinian troops, the sense of duty which kept the men going, despite everything. When a mutiny breaks out, Lussu is not a supporter, although he opposes mass executions in its aftermath. Italy’s war campaign is often overlooked in the history books, despite the mobilisation of six million men and the deaths of 571,000 of them. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the devastating experience of that war.

However, to fully understand that conflict some history is required. John Gooch’s careful and meticulously researched account, The Italian Army and the First World War is a very good place to start, alongside Mark Thompson’s superb The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 (2009). Gooch is a military historian with a deep understanding of the complexities of war and the technical aspects of the conflict. His volume, written with verve and a witty turn of phrase, is the perfect companion to Lussu’s stark and clear prose. The Italian Army takes the story right through from intervention, providing detailed analysis of the army itself, its tactics and the various battles, attacks, defeats or near-defeats (above all the semi-disaster at Caporetto in 1917) and the final and perhaps unexpected victory in 1918. Italy’s commemorations of the war have already started and it will be fascinating to see how that conflict is depicted in today’s world, given the manipulation of its history in the period since 1918 and the role of fascism. Thus far, the pacifist account – war as universal tragedy – has held sway, as interpreted in 2014 by Pope Francis in Gorizia.

John Foot is Professor of Modern Italian History at the University of Bristol.

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