Italys Sorrow by Mark Barnes

This is not a pretty story from any perspective, there no sides with clean hands

ITALY’S SORROW – A year of war 1944-45

By James Holland

A product of recent books on the Italian campaign has been the difference of opinion and style between the British and Americans. Not only in terms of aims and ideas, but often in approach to winning the war.  The relationship between Alexander and Clark has been paramount. The latter’s “posturing” and lust for glory relived and perhaps accentuated. The former’s alleged lack of “grip” underscored.

James Holland seeks to cut through a lot of this stuff and concentrate on the campaign itself. Largely ignoring the stalemate of Anzio, he delivers a highly charged account of events from Cassino to the collapse of German resistance in Italy.

This is not a pretty story from any perspective, there no sides with clean hands. The tragedy of Italy and it’s collapse into anarchy is well documented here. With the end of Mussolini’s state and the abdication of a thoroughly discredited king, the country more or less breaks up in to a mess as neo-fascists, communists, democrats and royalists attempt to gain something like an upper hand. Amidst all this the Germans, never squeamish, wage a series of brutal mini-wars against an ever expanding army of partisans, massacring thousands of innocents in the process.

Meanwhile the Allies somehow continue to advance causing untold death and destruction for the civilian population. Towns and villages are obliterated while General Juin’s rapacious regiments of Goumiers bring terror and ruin to thousands of women.

Holland brings a huge cast together in his story and extracts some quite amazing accounts of the fighting from German survivors and archives. The mass of personal disasters for Italian civilians and their families are offer very little comfort. For the Americans and British it is a case of endless slogging and fighting against the Germans, the elements and the terrain. Good people die. For General Anders’ Poles there is nothing but despair as they watch helplessly as their homeland is swallowed up in the Soviet advance. Kiwis, South Africans, Brazilians, Indians, French and Italians add further to the tale. Alexander’s army counted seventeen nations by the end of the campaign.

The story ends with the utter defeat of Germany, and for Italy, we see the anarchy of murder and retribution as genuine fascists and neo-fascists are dealt with alongside countless innocents denounced by neighbours and others to settle disputes and petty jealousies. A good deal of this book is taken up with the operations and privations of the brigades of partisans causing chaos behind the German lines. There is little doubt that their immense contribution to victory has been somewhat demeaned in popular history. The politics of the war may have swept them under some people’s carpets, but their sacrifice cannot be ignored.

So where does this leave us? Other accounts are bound to follow because Italy is clearly the ripe source of book potential for the current crop of top name World War II historians. James Holland sets a high standard. In ignoring much of the sustained bitterness towards to Mark Clark and concentrating more on the offensives and strategy of Alexander and the reality of Italy’s Sorrow he has achieved a balance I am pleasantly surprised I can subscribe to. This is an excellent book.

Published by HarperPress
ISBN: 978-0-00-717645-8 £25.00 (many dealers sell for £12.50). 

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.