Cadorna issued an order of the day, warning that the only choice was victory or death. The harshest means would be used to maintain discipline. ‘Whoever does not feel that he wins or falls with honour on the line of resistance, is not fit to live.’ He elaborated his instructions to the Second and Third Armies for an eventual retreat, and put the Carnia Corps and the Fourth Army on notice to retire beyond the River Piave.
What forced his hand was the loss that evening of Gran Monte, a summit west of Stol. At 02:50 on the 27th, he ordered the Third Army to retreat to the River Tagliamento. The same order went out to the Second Army an hour later. Yet 20 of the Second Army’s divisions were still in reasonable order, withdrawing from the Bainsizza and Gorizia. Cadorna’s priority should have been the safe retirement of these divisions – more than 400,000 men – behind the River Tagliamento. In his mind, however, the Second Army in its entirety was guilty. Perhaps this explains his decision to make the Second Army use only the northern bridges across the Tagliamento, reserving the more accessible routes for the ten divisions of the Third Army, which retreated ‘in good order, unbroken and undefeated’, burning the villages as well as its own ammunition dumps as it went, so that ‘the whole countryside was blazing and exploding’. This question of the bridges was critical, for the bed of the Tagliamento is up to three kilometres wide and the river was high after the rain, hence impassable by foot.
Between the Isonzo and the Tagliamento, the decomposing Second Army was left to its own devices. In the absence of proper plans for a retreat, there was nothing to arrest its fall. As commanding officers melted away in the tumult, key decisions were taken by any officer on hand, using his own impressions and whatever scraps of information came his way. According to a captain who testified to the Caporetto commission, the soldiers appeared to think the war was over; they were on their way home, mostly in high spirits, as if they had found the solution to a difficult problem.
A minor episode described in a letter to the press in 1918 illustrates the point. A lieutenant told the surviving members of his battalion that they would counter-attack soon, orders were on the way. Instead of orders, a sergeant came cycling along the road. When they stopped him and asked what was going on, he said the general and all the other bigwigs had run away.
‘Then we’re going too,’ someone said, and we all shouted ‘That’s right, we have had enough of the war, we’re going home.’ The lieutenant said ‘You’ve gone mad, I’ll shoot you’, but we took his pistol away. We threw our rifles away and started marching to the rear. Soldiers were pouring along the other paths and we told them all we were going home and they should come with us and throw their guns away. I was worried at first, but then I thought I had nothing to lose, I’d have been killed if I’d stayed in the trenches and anything was better than that. And then I felt so angry because I’d put up with everything like a slave till now, I’d never even thought of getting away. But I was happy too, we were all happy, all saying ‘it’s home or prison, but no more war’.
All along the front, variants on this scene convey a sense that a contract had been violated, dissolving the army’s right to command obedience. Nearly 400 years before, in his ‘Exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians’, Niccolò Machiavelli had warned his Prince that ‘all-Italian armies’ performed badly ‘because of the weakness of the leaders’ and the unreliability of mercenaries. The best course was ‘to raise a citizen army; for there can be no more loyal, more true, or better troops’. They are even better, he added, ‘when they find themselves under the command of their own prince and honoured and maintained by him’. Machiavelli the great realist would not have been surprised by the size of the bill that Cadorna was served after dishonouring his troops so consistently, and neglecting their maintenance so blatantly, for two and a half years.
On the third day of the offensive, the Austrians and Germans gave the first signs that they would not convert a brilliant success into crushing victory. Demoted in spring 1917 from chief of the general staff to commander on the Tyrol front, Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf had to sit and watch as von Below’s Fourteenth Army turned the tables on the hated enemy. Now he called for reinforcements so he could attack the Italian left flank. At best, Cadorna’s Second, Third and Fourth Armies and Carnia Corps would be trapped behind a line from Asiago to Venice, perhaps forcing Italy to accept an armistice. At the least, the Italians would be too distracted by the new threat to establish viable lines on the River Tagliamento.
Although Conrad’s reasoning was excellent, the Germans were not ready to increase their commitment or let the Austrians pull more divisions from the Eastern Front. Any Habsburg units which might be released by Russia’s virtual withdrawal from the war had to be sent to the Western Front, where the Germans were hard pressed by the British in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). All Conrad got were two divisions and a promise that any others no longer needed on the Isonzo would be sent to the Trentino for an offensive by five divisions, to commence on 10 November. But five divisions were pathetically few for the task, and 10 November would be too late.
Cadorna’s enemies had not expected such a breakthrough. As late as the 29th, Ludendorff stated that German units would not cross the Tagliamento. By this point, Boroević’s First Army (on the Carso) and Second Army (around the Bainsizza) should have been storming after the Italian Third Army. This did not happen, due to bad liaison between commanders, exhaustion, and the temptations of looting. As a result, the Third Army crossed the Tagliamento in good order at the end of October. Both divisions of the Carnia Corps also reached safety with few losses. Von Below would characterise the Austrian Tenth Army, that should have outflanked the Carnia Corps, as not ‘very vigorous in combat’.
On the afternoon of the 27th, the Supreme Command decamped from Udine to Treviso. Cadorna did not leave a deputy to organise the retreat. Was this an oversight or a logical expression of his belief that he was irreplaceable? Or was he punishing soldiers who had, as he believed, freely chosen not to fight? Let the cowards and traitors of the Second Army make their own shameful ways to the Tagliamento; they had forfeited the right to assistance.
By the following morning, the Supreme Command was installed in a palazzo in Treviso, more than 100 kilometres from the front. Over breakfast in his new headquarters, the chief talked about the art and landscape of Umbria, impressing his entourage with his serenity, a mood that presumably owed something to the King’s and the government’s affirmations of complete confidence in his leadership. (Meanwhile the enemy reached the outskirts of Udine, finding them ‘almost deserted with broken windows, plundered shops, dead drunk Italian soldiers and dead citizens’.) Before lunch Cadorna released the daily bulletin, blaming the enemy breakthrough on unnamed units of the Second Army, which had ‘retreated contemptibly without fighting or surrendered ignominiously’. Realising how incendiary these allegations were, the government watered down the text. It was too late: the original version had gone abroad and was already filtering back into Italy.
Late on the 28th, the enemy crossed the prewar border into Italy. The Austrian military bulletin was gleeful: ‘After five days of fighting, all the territory was reconquered that the enemy had laboriously taken in eleven bloody battles, paying for every square kilometre with the lives of 5,400 men.’ The Isonzo front ceased to exist. By the 29th, the Second and Third Armies were being showered with Austrian leaflets about Cadorna’s scandalous bulletin. ‘This is how he repays your valour! You have shed your blood in so many battles, your enemy will always respect you … It is your own generalissimo who dishonours and insults you, simply to excuse himself!’
An order on 31 October authorised any officer to shoot any soldier who was separated from his unit or offered the least resistance. This made a target of ten divisions of the Second Army. The worst abuses occurred near the northern bridges over the Tagliamento, where commanders who had abandoned their men days earlier saw a chance to redeem themselves.
The executions at Codroipo would provide a climactic scene in the only world-famous book about the Italian front: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
The wooden bridge was nearly three-quarters of a mile across, and the river, that usually ran in narrow channels in the wide stony bed far below the bridge, was close under the wooden planking … No one was talking. They were all trying to get across as soon as they could: thinking only of that. We were almost across. At the far end of the bridge there were officers and carabinieri standing on both sides flashing lights. I saw them silhouetted against the skyline. As we came close to them I saw one of the officers point to a man in the column. A carabiniere went in after him and came out holding the man by the arm … The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on … They were executing officers of the rank of major and above who were separated from their troops … So far they had shot everyone they had questioned.
The narrator is Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American volunteer with the Second Army ambulance unit. Caught up in the retreat from the Bainsizza, he is arrested on the bridge as a German spy. As he waits his turn with the firing squad, Henry escapes by diving into the river. ‘There were shots when I ran and shots when I came up the first time.’ He is swept downstream, away from the front and out of the war. Immersion in the Tagliamento breaks the spell of his loyalty to Italy. ‘Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation … I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience. It was no point of honour. I was not against them. I was through … it was not my show any more.’
The deaths in Hemingway’s chapter on Caporetto involve Italians killing each other. The enemy guns are off-stage, heard but not seen, while German troops are glimpsed from a distance, moving ‘smoothly, almost supernaturally, along’ – a brilliant snapshot of Italian awe. Henry shoots and wounds a sergeant who refuses to obey orders; his driver, a socialist, then finishes the wounded man off (‘I never killed anybody in this war, and all my life I’ve wanted to kill a sergeant’). The driver later deserts to the Austrians, a second driver dies under friendly fire, then there is the scene at the Tagliamento. It is a panorama of internecine brutality and betrayal, devoid of heroism. With the army self-destructing, nothing makes sense except Henry’s passion for an English nurse. Caporetto is much more than a vivid backdrop for a love story: it is an immense allegory of the disillusion that, in Hemingway’s world, everyone faces sooner or later. Henry’s desertion becomes a grand refusal, a nolo contendere untainted by cowardice, motivated by a disenchantment so complete that it feels romantic: a new, negative ideal which holds more truth than all the politics and patriotism in the world.
By 1 November, there were no Italian soldiers east of the Tagliamento. Cadorna had hoped to hold the line long enough to regroup much of the Second Army. Instead, early next day, an Austrian division forced its way across a bridge on the upper Tagliamento that had not been completely destroyed. This gave heart to a German division trying to ford the river further south. When both bridgeheads were consolidated, Cadorna faced the danger that most of his Second Army and all of his Third Army could be enveloped from the north. On the morning of 4 November, he ordered a retreat to the Piave line. The Austro-German commanders redefined their objectives: the Italians should be driven across the River Brenta – beyond Venice! However, Ludendorff was not yet convinced. By the time he changed his mind, on 12 November, approving a combined attack from the Trentino, the Italians had stabilised a new line on the River Piave and Anglo-French divisions were arriving from the Western Front.
Haig commented privately on 26 October that, ‘The Italians seem a wretched people, useless as fighting men but greedy for money. Moreover, I doubt whether they are really in earnest about this war. Many of them, too,’ he added for good measure, ‘are German spies.’ Although these prejudices were widely shared in London and France, the Allies were shocked by the speed of the disintegration and alarmed at its potential impact: if Italy were to be neutralised along with Russia, Austria would be free to support Germany on the Western Front. On 28 October, with Friuli ‘ablaze from end to end’, Britain and France agreed to send troops. Robertson and Foch, the respective chiefs of staff, offered six divisions: hardly enough to bail out their ally, but sufficient to bolster the defence and buy London and Paris political leverage that could be used to unseat the generalissimo.
The deed was done at an inter-Allied meeting in Rapallo, on 6 November. General Porro’s presentation dismayed the British and French; his vagueness about the facts of the situation and his pessimism confirmed that change at the top was overdue. There was even talk of retreating beyond the Piave to the River Mincio, losing the whole of the Veneto. In a stinging rebuff to the Supreme Command, and specifically to Cadorna’s allegations of 28 October, the British stated that they were ready to trust their troops to the bravery of the Italian soldiers but not to the efficiency of their commanders. When Porro tried to speak, Foch told him to shut up. On behalf of Britain and France, Lloyd George insisted on ‘the immediate riddance of Cadorna’. This gave cover to Orlando’s government of ‘national resistance’, which wanted Cadorna to go but feared a showdown. In return for an Italian pledge to hold the line on the Piave, the British and French increased their promised support to five and six divisions respectively.
As the flood of Italian troops ebbed towards the Piave and the Supreme Command reasserted control over shattered units, the Central Powers made errors. Instead of striking from the north-west as von Below and Boroević swept in from the east, Conrad’s underpowered army advanced to the southern edge of the Asiago plateau and no further. The Krauss Corps was sent north to secure Carnia instead of pursuing the Italians westward.
After the war, Hindenburg described his disappointment over Caporetto. ‘At the last the great victory had not been consummated.’ Krauss accused Boroević of failing to clinch victory over the Third Army. These recriminations reflect the bitterness of overall defeat in the World War, which made Caporetto look like a missed opportunity. Piero Pieri, the first notable historian of the Italian war, put his finger on the problem: the Central Powers had, on this occasion, lacked ‘the annihilating mentality’.
King Victor Emanuel had his finest hour on 8 November, rising to the moment with a speech affirming his faith in Italy’s destiny. That day, the Second and Third Armies completed their crossing of the River Piave, which was running high after heavy rain. At noon on the 9th, the engineers dropped the bridges.
The new line lay some 150 kilometres west of the Isonzo. The fulcrum of the line was a rugged massif called Grappa, some 20 kilometres square. If Grappa fell, the Italians would be vulnerable both from the north and the east. After the Austrian attack of May and June 1916, Cadorna had planned to fortify Mount Grappa with roads, tunnels and trenches. In effect it was the fifth defensive line from the Isonzo. Engineering in mountainous terrain was what the Italian army did best, yet these works were hardly in hand when the Twelfth Battle began: a single track and two cableways to the summit, a water-pumping station, some barbed wire, and gun emplacements facing the wrong way (westwards).
When the Krauss Corps and then von Below’s Fourteenth Army hit the Grappa massif in mid-November, like the last blows of a sledgehammer, the Italians were almost knocked back onto the plains. Conrad quipped that they hung on to the south-western edge of Grappa like a man to a window-ledge. The Supreme Command packed 50 battalions onto Grappa – around 50,000 men, including many recruits from the latest draft class. The ensuing struggle was a battle in itself; the situation was only saved at the end of December, with timely help from a French division – the Allies’ sole active contribution to the defence after Caporetto. This achievement gave birth to two new, much-needed myths: the defence of Mount Grappa was acclaimed as a victory that saved the kingdom, and the ‘boys of ’99’, sent straight from training to perform miracles, proved that Italian fighting mettle was alive and well.
Foch and Robertson would have preferred the Duke of Aosta to replace Cadorna. This was said to be inappropriate because the Duke was a cousin of the King; in truth, it was impossible because Victor Emanuel loathed his tall, handsome cousin. So they accepted the government’s proposal of General Armando Diaz, with Badoglio and Giardino as joint deputies.
Diaz, a 57-year-old Neapolitan, had risen steadily through the ranks. After the Libyan war, in which he showed a rare talent for winning the affection and respect of his regiment, he served as General Pollio’s chef de cabinet. After a year in the Supreme Command, he asked to be sent to the front, where his calm good humour was noticed by the King, among others. He led the XXIII Corps on the Carso with no particular distinction. A brother general described him as a fine man and a good soldier but completely adaptable, ‘like pasta’, with no ideas of his own. Cadorna’s court journalists scoffed at the appointment, and Gatti was withering (‘Who knows Diaz?’).
Diaz would vindicate the King’s trust. News of his promotion, on 8 November, struck him like a bolt of lightning. Accepting the ‘sacred duty’, he said: ‘You are ordering me to fight with a broken sword. Very well, we shall fight all the same.’ And fight he did, though in a different way from his predecessor. He proved to be an exceptional administrator and skilful mediator, reconciling the government and the Supreme Command to each other, and rival generals to his own appointment. Journalists were told that ‘with this man, there will be no dangerous independence. State operations will be kept united at all times.’ In other words, no more ‘government in Udine’. His first statement to the troops urged them to fight for their land, home, family and honour – in that order. He was what the army and the country needed after Cadorna, and while he showed no brilliance as a strategist, he made no crucial mistakes and took the decisions that led to victory.
On 7 November, hosting his last supper at the Supreme Command, Cadorna addressed posterity over the plates: ‘I, with my will and my fist, created and sustained this organism, this army of 3,000,000 men, until yesterday. If I had not done it, we would never have made our voice heard in Europe …’ Early the following day, the King arrived to persuade Cadorna to leave quietly. They conferred for two hours. Cadorna knew he could not survive, yet the humiliation was too much. There was no graceful exit. Diaz arrived late that evening. When he presented a letter from the minister of war announcing his appointment as chief of staff with immediate effect, Cadorna broke off the meeting and telegraphed the minister: he would not go without a written dismissal. The order arrived early next morning. A new regime took over at the Supreme Command.
The phrase ‘doing a Cadorna’ became British soldiers’ slang for coming unstuck, perpetrating an utter fuck-up and paying the price.
The statistics of defeat were dizzying. The Italians lost nearly 12,000 dead, 30,000 wounded and 294,000 prisoners. In addition, there were 350,000 disbanded men, roaming around or making for home. Only half of the army’s 65 divisions survived intact, and half the artillery had been lost: more than 3,000 guns, as well as 300,000 rifles, 3,000 machine guns, 1,600 motor vehicles and so forth. Territorially, some 14,000 square kilometres were lost, with a population of 1,150,000 people.
The Austro-German offensive was prepared with a meticulousness that the Supreme Command could hardly imagine. The execution, too, was incomparably efficient. Cadorna’s general method, as he once explained to the King, was to use as many troops as possible along a sector as broad as possible, hoping the enemy lines would crack somewhere. The Italian insistence on retaining centralised control at senior levels was also archaic beside the German devolution of authority to assault team level. Caporetto was the outcome when innovative tactics were expertly used against an army that was, in doctrine and organisation, one of the most hidebound in Europe.
The Twelfth Battle was a Blitzkrieg before the concept existed. An Austrian officer who fought in the Krauss Corps described the assault on 24 October as a fist punching through a barrier, then unclenching to spread its fingers. This is very like a recent description of Blitzkrieg as resembling ‘a shaped charge, penetrating through a relatively tiny hole in a tank’s armor and then exploding outwardly to achieve a maximum cone of damage against the unarmored or less protected innards’. Those innards had, in the Italian case, been weakened by a combination of savage discipline, mediocre leadership, second-rate equipment and arduous terrain. Without this debilitation, the Second Army would not have collapsed almost on impact.
Naturally, Cadorna could not see or accept that he had undermined the troops. But he knew that others would make this charge, which is why he launched, pre-emptively, the self-serving myth that traitors and cowards were responsible for the defeat. This myth became Cadorna’s most durable legacy, thanks in part to a prompt endorsement by Leonida Bissolati, the cabinet minister. Adding a nuance to Cadorna’s lie, Bissolati claimed that a sort of ‘military strike’ had taken place. Probably he was scoring points against his rivals on the political left; instead he deepened a stain on the army that still lingers. By likening the events on the Isonzo to the recent workers’ protests in Turin, Bissolati put a political complexion on the defeat. The ease with which discipline was restored by the end of 1917 would have scotched these allegations if it had not suited Italy’s leaders to keep them alive. It also suited the Allies, who wanted to minimise the responsibility of their Italian colleagues and had their own doubts about Italian martial spirit. Ambassador Rodd and General Delmé-Radcliffe parroted the conspiracy theory in their reports to London. For the historian George Trevelyan, leading the British Red Cross volunteers who retreated with the Third Army, there was ‘positive treachery at Caporetto’; Cadorna’s infamous bulletin had told the salutary truth. For the novelist John Buchan, working as a senior propagandist in London, treachery had ‘contributed to the disaster’, for a ‘secret campaign was conducted throughout Italy’ in 1917, producing a ‘poison’ that ‘infected certain parts of the army to an extent of which the military authorities were wholly ignorant’.
For some, a more dreadful possibility underlay these accusations. Was ‘Italy’ a middle-class illusion? Instead of forging a stronger nation-state, the furnace of war had almost dissolved it. What would happen at the next test? Disaffection with the state might be wider and deeper than they had thought possible. Had the mass of Italians somehow been left out of the nation-building process? If so, what further disasters still lay in store? It was a moment when everything solid seemed to melt away. The philosopher Croce, usually imperturbable to a fault, wrote during the Twelfth Battle: ‘The fate of Italy is being decided for centuries to come.’ Even politicians who did not swallow the ‘military strike’ thesis, and knew that Socialist members of parliament were too patriotic to want peace at any price, feared the outcome if popular disaffection became politically focused. After all, Lenin had taken power in Russia in early November. For weeks after Caporetto, many officials believed that revolution or sheer exhaustion would force Italy out of the war.
This mood of shaken self-questioning subsided as the army was rebuilt in late 1917 and early 1918. It would be driven underground, into the national unconscious, first by the victories of 1918, then by Fascist suppression. Yet those who took part never forgot the fearful dreamlike days when the world turned upside down. For the essence of Caporetto lay in the wrenching uncertainty of late October, when the commanders did not know what was happening, the officers did not know what to do, the soldiers did not know where the enemy was, the government did not know if Italy was on the brink of losing the war, and ordinary citizens did not know if their country might cease to exist. All Italians dreamed that dream; the nation was haunted by an image of men fleeing the front in hundreds of thousands, throwing away their rifles, overcome by disgust with the army, the state and all its works, wanting nothing more (or less) than to go home. When the anti-fascist Piero Gobetti wrote in the 1920s that the Italians were still ‘a people of stragglers, not yet a nation’, he evoked that fortnight when the country threatened to come apart at the seams.
Under Mussolini, the myth of a military strike was discouraged; it undermined the Fascists’ very different myth of the war as the foundation of modern Italy, a blood rite that re-created the nation. The fact of defeat at Caporetto had to be swallowed: a sour pill that could be sweetened by blaming the government’s weakness. Fascist accounts of the Twelfth Battle tended to whitewash Cadorna and defend the honour of the army (‘great even in misfortune’) while incriminating Capello and indicting the government in Rome for tolerating defeatists, profiteers and bourgeois draft-dodgers. Boselli (‘tearful helmsman of the ship of state’) and his successor Orlando were particularly lampooned. One valiant historian in the 1930s turned the narrative of defeat inside out by hailing Caporetto as a deliberate trap set and sprung by Cadorna, ‘the greatest strategist of our times’. The Duce himself called Caporetto ‘a reverse’ that was ‘absolutely military in nature’, produced by ‘an initial tactical success of the enemy’. Britain and France could also be condemned for recalling, in early October 1917, most of the 140 guns they had lent Cadorna earlier in the year. Even so, the defeat was not to be examined too closely. When Colonel Gatti wanted to write a history of Caporetto, in 1925, Mussolini granted access to the archives in the Ministry of War. Then he had second thoughts; summoning Gatti to Rome, he said it was a time for myths, not history. After 1945, leftist historians argued that large parts of the army had indeed ‘gone on strike’, not due to cowardice or socialism, but as a spontaneous rebellion against the war as it was led by Cadorna and the government.
That primal fear of dissolution survives in metaphor. Corruption scandals are still branded ‘a moral Caporetto’. Politicians accuse each other of facing an ‘electoral Caporetto’. When small businesses are snarled up in Italy’s notorious red tape, they complain about an ‘administrative Caporetto’. When England lost to Northern Ireland at football, it was ‘the English Caporetto’. This figure of speech stands for more than simple defeat; it involves a hint of stomach-churning exposure – rottenness laid bare.