Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance III

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Caporetto The Flashing Sword of Vengeance III

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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