General Luigi Cadorna: A Reappraisal

The year 1866 was not an auspicious time to join the Italian Army. The service was still reeling from the disastrous influence of its constabulary duties during the brigantaggio, the period from the unification of Italy to the late 1860s, when the primary function of the army was maintaining law and order, and was not, therefore, organized to engage a major European opponent. Although theoretically reforms had been set in motion since the late 1850s, the Italian Army defeated at Custozza in June continued to be plagued by natural inertia, the causes of which were a rigid officers corps, a lack of operational precedents, and a dearth of natural resources and national cohesion. It was in this atmosphere that Luigi Cadorna began his military career.

When he joined the army, Cadorna, like his colleagues, faced slow advancement and poor salaries. However, certain ambitious and motivated officers were interested in the study of the art and science of war, forming a ‘dedicated and compact’ corps. Luigi showed potential and an exceptional ability to organize, and in 1892 at forty-two years of age, he earned his colonelcy. Nevertheless, he was overshadowed in many respects by his father. Raffaele Cadorna had enjoyed much success during his career, fighting in 1848–9, and serving in the Piedmontese Army in the Crimea. In 1866, his corps was one of the few noteworthy Italian success stories, which helped to distance him from Italy’s dismal failures in the Seven Weeks’ War. Raffaele’s crowning achievement came in September 1870, when he completed the unification of Italy by capturing Rome during the Porta Pia while the French were fighting the Franco-Prussian War.

The years after the demise of France as Europe’s chief land power was a monumental era in the evolution of warfare. It was in this climate that Luigi formulated the ideas that were to prevail later in his military tenure. He was quick to see that the Italian Army had to modernize in order to compete in European military circles. However, this was easier to conceptualize than it was to implement. The need for quick mobilization was readily apparent, but in Italy, with its mountainous terrain and regional population differences, the new standards of military rail organization proved difficult to realize. Military modernization was expensive; and although Italy spent most of her national expenditure on the armed forces during this period, by August 1914 Italy was still considered in its military infancy. Cadorna was just reaching the higher command positions as the Italian Army grappled with these imposing dilemmas.

Four years after being promoted to colonel, Luigi was appointed to the General Staff, and there had to wait fourteen years before obtaining corps command. When the Chief of Staff position became vacant around the same time, Cadorna was considered, but was passed over for the more pliant Alberto Pollio, although many believed that Cadorna was better suited to address many of the army’s more urgent problems. However, Pollio was pro-German, and therefore seemed to be a safe choice in this era of diplomatic and military instability. Pollio continued to plan military operations with Germany and Austria-Hungary, although the alliance had been deteriorating for some time. Indeed, the reason that Italy joined the Triplice in 1882 was the need to capitalize on German military prestige. The central difficulty with the alliance was that the national antagonism between Rome and Vienna hindered diplomatic and military co-operation, and by the turn of the century, many European commentators questioned its validity. From 1902 to the beginning of the First World War, Italy negotiated with Great Britain and France, although the Italian government did not want to see the French continue to grow into a Mediterranean power. This created an enormous rift between Italy’s political and military leaders, for the politicians kept the negotiations secret, and continued to do so right until Italy declared war in May 1915. To operate in a diplomatic and military climate that was basically Clausewitzian in nature, communications between the heads of state and the military leaders were a necessity. Correspondence between the Italian government and the military establishment was virtually non-existent, and when the representatives did talk about crucial matters, the meetings were normally strained and led to misunderstandings. Furthermore, the lines of communication between the army and the navy were worse than existed between the politicians and the generals. These conditions so hampered Italian military operations that Cadorna must have felt that he was an island in a sea of confusion. With no reliable information coming from any quarter, Cadorna became isolated in his own theories. This made him appear like a hapless and disconnected commander, out of touch with reality, and unable to keep his finger on the pulse of contemporary diplomatic and military attitudes.

Just after assuming his country’s highest military rank after Pollio’s death in July 1914, it seems that many of Cadorna’s characteristics became readily apparent. He was born of an aristocratic family in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, and therefore it was assumed that he inherited many ‘Nordic’ traits from his Germanic ancestors. He was a firm disciplinarian, who was often regarded as cold and indifferent to the conditions of his front-line soldiers. However, Cadorna was preparing the Italian Army for the storm of the First World War from the time he was appointed Chief-of-Staff until Italian mobilization, for he needed to rectify numerous weaknesses before the army could become an effective force. Cadorna was not a ‘from the front’ style of commander, choosing to lead by telephone and courier, staying behind the lines to perceive the front as a whole instead of becoming fixated on one particular sector. The truth of the matter was that most of his contemporaries could not produce solutions to the complexities of modern attritional warfare, and it was Cadorna’s misfortune that many considered the Italian Army defeated by its reputation before it was ever engaged in military operations.

In a conundrum rare in the annals of military-diplomatic history, Italy needed to align herself with the leading land and naval powers to achieve anything diplomatically. Desiring to manoeuvre behind the shield of German military might, Italian diplomats also had to consider that the Italian peninsula presented over 4100 miles of indefensible coastline, therefore Great Britain and the spectre of the Royal Navy heavily influenced any Italian military venture. Although this difficulty was not as severe just after 1871, due to the awe in which Germany was held after her impressive defeat of France, as the Royal Navy continued to assert its presence in world affairs, Italy’s diplomatic bonds with Germany and Austria-Hungary weakened. At the time of the Sarajevo assassination, Italy was in a quandary about what she would do in case of a European war. When Cadorna assumed command, he fell straight into this abyss, for he was not kept abreast of the vicissitudes in Italian diplomacy. While Italian politicians wrangled with Allied and Triplice negotiators for territorial compensation, Cadorna remained dangerously unaware of the change in Italian foreign policy. Just a few weeks before Italy was to announce that she was going to war with Austria-Hungary, Cadorna was informed to make the necessary plans for conducting an offensive against the Habsburg Empire. Cadorna, taken completely by surprise and astonished that he was kept in the dark for so long, rightfully exploded ‘What? I knew nothing!’ Much of the military planning to this time had been directed against France. Although exigency plans had been created for a war with Vienna, many changes had to be implemented before the Italian high command could enact any effective strategy against Austria-Hungary.

No one was prepared for the tactical realities of the First World War. Not only did Cadorna have to contend with an army that was materially weak and engaged in a nasty little colonial war, but, in addition, his theatre of operations was arguably the most difficult of the entire war. Hemmed in along the northern frontier with mountains often reaching elevations over 10,000 feet, the Italians were at a severe topographic disadvantage. Any other avenue of approach to the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have to be by sea, an unlikely prospect considering the strained relations that existed between the army and navy. Selecting the extreme north-east sector of the Austro-Italian frontier just north of the Adriatic Sea for his main effort, Cadorna soon found himself in a slugging match with a skilled and determined enemy. Since most of the writings about the influence of modern weapons on tactics were poorly received or simply ignored, Cadorna reacted to the stalemate in a typically First World War fashion: headlong assaults with massive concentrations of artillery and infantry. Although the existing historiography does not cover the matter in detail, it was an Italian characteristic to make up for the deficiencies in weapons and tactics with the blood of the foot soldier. To assuage the popular myths created by the debacle at Caporetto, and by British and American veterans of the Second World War, the Italian infantryman between May 1915 and October 1917 displayed abundant courage and zeal when coming to grips with the Austro-Hungarians. However, Cadorna failed to consider the wellbeing of his main instrument, for rest in the rear areas was almost unheard of in most Italian divisions. The morale of any soldier would be devastated by the rigours of combat without periods of recuperation.

Since Cadorna fought his war from behind the lines, the Italian high command was slow to develop tactical innovations that considered the hostile geography of the Italian front. More often than not, Italian infantrymen had to attack over rocky and rugged surfaces, up slopes averaging between thirty and forty-five degrees, against a well-equipped enemy protected by defences excavated out of solid rock. Much of what the Italians learned tactically was from the Austrians, who were refining tested German operational and tactical practices, or from the French, who were not known at this time to be a source of tactical innovation. A good example of this was the Austrian offensive in the Trentino in May 1916. Using loose formations that used terrain features to open holes in the Italian lines after a tremendous artillery preparation, the Austrians enjoyed some success before the weight of their attack caused the logistic apparatus to break down. Using this information to form infiltration units of his own, Cadorna shifted ample reserves and guns to the Isonzo while the Austrians were preoccupied with the Brusilov offensive on the Eastern Front to capture Gorizia in August 1916. Proving adept at handling large bodies of men over Italy’s less than adequate rail system, Cadorna shifted the brunt of his army and guns to the Isonzo after the abortive Austrian attack on the Asiago plateau. Massing one of the largest artillery concentrations ever to be used on the Italian front, and employing select infantry units at certain concentration points, the Italians captured Gorizia, Mount Sabotino, and carried the western section of the Carso plateau in two weeks, whereas before nearly six months of offensive action failed to secure any of these objectives.

At the beginning of the war, the Italian Army consisted of thirty-five divisions. When Cadorna started his eleventh battle on the Bainsizza plateau in September 1917, he had sixty-five divisions at his disposal. The drain of attritional mountain warfare and rapid growth produced severe problems, such as an acute lack of munitions. Cadorna had to organize, arm, and train over one million men in two years – not an inconsiderable feat for an institution that was not known for its organizational capacity, especially considering that going into the conflict the Italians were still suffering substantial casualties in Africa. It is in this realm where Cadorna did his best work, and if it were not for this progress, the results of the Austro-German offensive in October would have been far worse.

Nearly two years of continual action was not only sapping Italy’s material ability to wage the war, it was also draining her morale. Cadorna, a strict disciplinarian far removed for the realities of trench warfare, failed to allow his soldiers to have any substantial periods of rest and relaxation, and therefore they lost much of their elan. Moreover, the offensive posture of Cadorna’s military operations often forced Italian division and corps commanders to neglect their forward defences. Just after the Italian successes in September on the Bainsizza, Cadorna ordered defences to be strengthened, for the near capitulation of Russia had freed Austrian formations from other duties, and he feared an enemy offensive. Although the Italians had fortified certain areas, mainly in the topographically favourable stretches of terrain around Gorizia and the Carso plateau, the Austro-German army struck on the upper Isonzo, along a lightly defended ridge just south of the small town of Caporetto. The Italians had planned to use a mobile defence, but the speed of the enemy advance caught them completely off guard, and soon the Italian Second Army was in flight, while the Third Army was forced to enact a strategic withdrawal across the Fruili Plains. The enemy offensive forced Cadorna to leave behind much of his heavy equipment and artillery – the accumulation of two years’ hard work. These losses, and the capture of about 300,000 men severely crippled the Italian war effort.

Not having secured the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Army after two years of extreme hardship and losses, Cadorna was sacked and replaced by one of his corps commanders, Armando Diaz. Cadorna’s cold and indifferent attitude toward not only his soldiers, but also toward the politicians had not ingratiated him with any power bloc that might have proved beneficial to him in case of a disaster. Therefore, Cadorna was supposedly kicked upstairs, and was sent to represent Italy on the Supreme Allied War Council. Soon thereafter, an investigation fixed the blame for the debacle squarely on his shoulders, and Cadorna retired in disgrace in December 1918. In all fairness, the Italian government needed a scapegoat, and since Cadorna was no longer the Chief of Staff and had directed the Italian armies since the beginning of the war, he was the logical choice. The government failed to pay attention to Cadorna when he warned that the front-line soldiers were being saturated with anti-war propaganda, which was growing vociferously all over Europe. He should have expected a great deal of criticism for his lack of preparedness when the Central Powers struck; however, the government should have realized that by attaching most of the blame to Cadorna, they had negated a fair record of success along the Isonzo during the first two years of the war.

The reputation of the Italian Army and Cadorna continues to languish. Holger Herwig, for example, recently deprecated him and his Austrian counterpart General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf in the following way: ‘Both ignored terrain and weather. Both underestimated supply. Both stressed the will to fight. Both devised grandiose strategies that bore little relation to ready strength. And both insisted on their own infallibility.’28 However, Cadorna should not be uncritically blamed for the apparent lack of Italian progress during the war. He took an army embroiled in a colonial venture and forged it, under the most trying conditions, into one comparable with other European armies of the era. It is easy to say the Italian Army was bad, and that Cadorna was unimaginative or, as John Keegan puts it, a ‘château general’. However, the Italian Army had to attack in the most inhospitable front of the entire war, and was capable of capturing many key objectives, often when their efforts were hampered by lack of artillery and ammunition. The Austrian defences were exceedingly strong and set in mutually supporting positions across the front, providing Austrian machine gunners and artillery officers with strong positions for enfilade fire. Cadorna had conducted reconnaissance of the front before the war, and knew what his soldiers would have to face while fighting in the mountainous terrain. He was aware that operations on the Italian front would take patience and technical innovation, and was quick to adopt new weapons, such as the trench mortar and the teleferiche railway. The latter was a cable anchored to a base and stretched to the summit of an elevation, on which a cart or basket moved supplies and men to areas where the altitude and slope prohibited road construction. The need for mechanical assistance played an important role in the development of Cadorna’s army. Unfortunately, these gadgets were seen as the answers to tricky tactical and operational questions instead of being incorporated into existing doctrine, or being the catalysts for entirely new procedures. Often when certain divisions formulated new practices, the lack of communication on the administrative level prevented them from being disseminated. This is probably Cadorna’s most glaring fault, and shows just how isolated he was from the various contingents of his own army.

Contending with the rocky rugged terrain and the Austrian positional supremacy should have been an ideal catalyst for tactical innovation. However, the topographical compartmentalization of the front prevented the Italian high command from forming a clear picture of what was working or failing. Still, the Italians implemented some astonishing tactical changes, which were generally a result of learning from the enemy, or from division commanders who assessed certain areas and formed their units according to specific geographic problems. As the first four Isonzo offensives attempted to pierce the Austrian defences, the first just north of Mount Sabotino, the last three on the topographically more conducive Carso plateau, the Italians found it impossible to make any substantial progress against the enemy while using tactics that would not have been out of place on a battlefield during the Napoleonic era or during the American Civil War. This was not just an Italian problem – even the much vaunted Germans went to war in 1914 with tactical formations that were little changed since the victorious campaigns of 1866 and 1870–1. Realizing that they had to contend with perplexing terrain difficulties, and that their methods lacked the finesse to overcome and retain most defensive positions, the Italians began to search for solutions and, unfortunately, looked to the French for tactical answers. Although not as inept as many historians portray it be, the French Army was not exactly the source from which any belligerent would want to borrow military instructions at this stage of the war. The French were also enamoured by the results of the Wars of German Unification, and thought the answer to their military conundrum was to emulate the German model on a larger, more efficient scale. Each nation is a separate and unique entity, and therefore should forge its military accordingly. Therefore the problem with Italy, and indeed much of Europe, was that she should have been trying to create a national force based on her own capabilities and limitations instead of copying a successful yet dated German model. The Italian Army needed to be Italian, not a mere imitation of the German Army whose strength was as much from economic and industrial power as it was from any radical advances in the military arts and sciences.

By the time the Austrians struck in the Trentino, the Italians had received some tactical advice from the French, who were then going through the horrors of Verdun. However, the problem was not that they were receiving procedural assistance from the French, it was that they were usually receiving this help nearly six months after the tactics were first employed. Considering the rigid and ponderous methods prevalent in the Italian Army, it was usually several more months before any of this experience could be translated into military practice. Some procedures would take even longer to employ because of material deficiencies. The result was that the Italians were tactically and operationally behind most of the other major belligerents. A case in point was the massive artillery concentration used against Austrian defences on the Bainsizza. An overwhelming concentration of guns was nearly a constant goal of Allied and Central Power planners since the beginning of the war, the desire increasing after the German attack at Verdun. The attack on Verdun began in February 1916. The battle of the Bainsizza started in August 1917. This was just three months before the Central Powers introduced new tactical methods at Caporetto. Cadorna was methodical, but he often did not push tactical and operational changes fast enough, and hardly had time to use the old methods before he fell victim to a new set of offensive procedures.

Many historians wonder why Cadorna did not use the navy to land combat units in an area where geography would allow them to be employed more effectively. The army and navy never enjoyed a convivial relationship, and therefore could not count on each other to be the most ‘co-operative’ partners. Both were wary of enterprises that would waste resources and leave themselves in the lurch. Cadorna was hesitant to release any of his battalions to make a landing along the eastern coast of the Adriatic, and the navy did not want to risk its capital ships in the same enterprise, for they knew amphibious operations would force a major surface action with the Austrian Navy. Although the Italians had landed approximately 40,000 troops along the north African coast during the war with Turkey in 1910–1, the aftershocks of this campaign still weighed upon the minds of military planners. Moreover, the areas where troops could be landed did not offer better geographic conditions that existed on the Isonzo Front. Italian formations were landed in Albania, and promptly suffered a reverse in the field and had to be evacuated with the loss of much equipment. Another venture, where Italian forces were deployed in Salonika, did little more than isolate a sizeable force. The enterprise held little chance of tactical success, and did not make a strategic contribution until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies late in 1918.

In hindsight, Cadorna seems to be just another commander that falls into the stereotype of a First World War general, an indifferent man who sent his soldiers to die by the thousands, while staying safely behind the front, out of harm’s way. This is only half true. Cadorna was conscious of the heavy losses the Italians were suffering – one and a half million casualties during the war, 460,000 of which were fatalities – if not from a humanitarian viewpoint, from operational realism. He knew that the Italian nation could not go on indefinitely due to its lack of natural resources and economic reserves. He used the only commodity the Italians possessed, a sizeable population base, until better operational and tactical methods could be developed. It was his misfortune that the Central Powers were generally the first to introduce innovative tactical and operational procedures, and just happened to test them in the secondary theatres before employing them on the Western Front.

It is curious that the Italians have been castigated for their debacle at Caporetto, as Cadorna skilfully withdrew his Third Army across the congested Fruili Plains, and even managed to salvage certain portions of the Second Army. Although trying to establish defensive positions on the major waterways in the eastern sector of the plains, he was forced back to the Piave River before he could restore his front. Geography and distance prevented the British or the French from saving the Italians, for by the time Allied troops reached Italy, Cadorna had stabilized the front, but had been fired in the process. Haig finally had to succumb to French pressure for overall direction of the war so that unity of command could re-establish Allied defences on the Western Front.

Cadorna was not totally forgotten after Caporetto. He went on to be the Italian representative on the Supreme Allied War Council, and exhibited an uncanny grasp of military problems. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Cadorna had invaluable experience in handling an army; the second was that he was a well-known theoretical writer about European military affairs, and had dealt academically with many problems concerning coalition warfare before the war. Cadorna’s problem was that he undoubtedly held the wrong post, for he could not deal appropriately with the minutiae of war. His father, the general who had shown some promise in the Seven Weeks’ War, realized his full potential as the Minister of War for the government of Tuscany in 1859. It was in this area where Cadorna showed his optimum potential. Once the politicians confided in him concerning Italy’s diplomatic endeavours, Cadorna followed their policies and worked energetically toward their realization. His realistic mind, although restricting his creativity, never allowed him to entertain fantastic or unrealistic schemes. This aptitude for the diplomatic-military sphere was clearly seen at the Supreme War Council, for he could quickly equate objectives with available means and gauge probable outcomes, not only in a military sense, but in the diplomatic realm as well. This could be a result of having to contend with Italy’s chronic lack of resources while trying to conduct a major war effort – something that he lost sight of during the offensives of 1915, but then addressed in future operations. Therefore, his organizational talents would have been better suited to the war ministry, and were not geared to the frustratingly complex phenomenon of a First World War army command. After the war, Cadorna busied himself with writing a book about the Italian front, much of which was in defence of his actions connected with Caporetto. Falling into relative obscurity, he was somewhat revitalized when Mussolini, ever the astute politician and consummate showman, made Cadorna a Field Marshal in 1924. This ceremony was an empty gesture, doing nothing to vindicate Cadorna’s reputation, which still suffers today from a lack of scholarship and interest. He will never be known as one of the great captains of history, but considering what he did with what he had available, his story deserves better treatment.

Soon the Western Front would be embroiled in a chaotic retreat, and many of the divisions sent to Italy would be recalled. However, with Cadorna fading into the history of the First World War, a new phase of the war emerged in Italy, as British and French contingents arrived to bolster their crippled ally.

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