General Luigi, il Conti di Cadorna, served as Chief of the General Staff from 1914 until the end of 1917. His primary task had been to modernize the Italian Army, but the Italian entry into World War One followed his appointment too quickly. As head of the war effort, he undertook a devastating series of attacks along the same stretch of front, gaining little at much cost. Showing neither imagination in his planning, nor appreciation for the sacrifices of the Italian soldier, Cadorna eventually lost the confidence of the army and the politicians alike.
Like many commanders in the First World War, Cadorna owed many of his opportunities in the army to family connections. The Piedmont had, in fact, contributed a high proportion of leading officers, and Cadorna’s father had enjoyed an illustrious career among them. The elder General Cadorna had participated in the Risorgimiento that laid the groundwork the unification of Italy, and also served in the Crimean War. Luigi had followed his father into the military, and after 46 years, he was tapped to take the leading role in the army as a whole.
The previous Army Chief of Staff, General Pollo, died in 1914. By treaty, Italy was committed to the aid of Germany and Austria, and as recently as February 1914, Pollo had confirmed that a modest force was available in the north to be used against France. The Italian army was grossly unprepared for any major conflict, however. For decades, the draft had been resisted, and even by the second decade of the twentieth century, as many as one-fifth of the men called up managed to evade conscription. Italian military adventures in North Africa had not helped. The 1896 campaign in Ethiopia had been catastrophic, and while the more recent efforts in Libya in 1911 and 1912 had enjoyed greater success, they still expended much of the army’s equipment reserves.
When Cadorna was named Chief of Staff, his primary directive had been to prepare the army for participation in the approaching war, including the transformation of the Italian army into a modern fighting force. In the event, Cadorna had just under a year to prepare the army, and neither objective had been fulfilled. In raw numbers, the Italians still had only 35 divisions available when they joined the war in 1915, and artillery was in short supply.
Events had also changed the character of Italian participation in the war. In 1914, Italy’s formal obligations called for engaging the French at the border between Italian Piedmont and southeast France. The Italians had been able to justify their neutrality on two counts under the treaty that made the Triple Alliance: Italy would not be compelled to go to war against Great Britain, and the Austrians had been required to discuss their plans with Italy before undertaking any initiatives in the Balkans. These provisions supported the Italian decision to remain neutral in 1914, but neutrality offered the Entente a chance to woo Italy to its side. The success of the Entente in this case was due largely to the fact that Italy had much more interest in Austrian territory than it might have had in French territory. The prospect of rejoining Italian populations in Trieste and the Trentino to the Kingdom of Italy overrode all other factors. Moreover, Austrian reverses on the Eastern Front suggested that the defeat of Austria was possible.
Military unpreparedness was not the only difficulty with which Cadorna needed to contend. Italy’s foreign policy had been conducted in secret, and when it was announced, it met no appreciable popular support. Nor did the decision to make war upon Austria in the east instead of France in the west ease Italy’s tactical difficulties. Italy’s objectives, the Trentino and Trieste, lay across a mountainous northern region and a well-defended frontier zone dominated by the river Isonzo.
In his strategic planning, Cadorna concluded that he could not hope to achieve too much in the Alps. His troops advanced somewhat into Austrian territory there, and then dug in to hold their positions. It was, instead, in the direction of Trieste (and through Trieste to Vienna itself) that Cadorna expected to achieve some progress. Cadorna trusted in the power of offensive action to accomplish his goals; he employed nothing else beyond frontal assaults.
The Italians thus enjoyed a modest advantage in numbers and the tactical initiative. Neither was sufficient to make progress against a determined defense in the First World War. While this alone should have doomed Cadorna’s plan, the Italian troops also met with difficult terrain and flood conditions at the Isonzo river. The Italians were able to reach the Isonzo fairly readily, but there they were halted. Cadorna resolved to undertake a massive offensive to cross the Isonzo and capture the Austrian town of Gorizia (Goerz) beyond it.
The result was a series of offensives known as the Isonzo Battles. In all, there were eleven of these battles, four of them in 1915 alone. These had no appreciable effect. Indeed, Gorizia did not fall until the summer of 1916, during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. Another year of fighting, and five more distinct Battles of the Isonzo, bought the Italians four more miles of Austrian land on the eastern side of the Isonzo, but little else. Trieste remained far away.
For most of this time, Austria remained on the defensive, largely at the insistence of its German ally. The Austrian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hoetzendorf, mounted one offensive in the Trentino, resulting in some heavy damage on both sides; in the end, the Austrians were compelled to withdraw, and the Italians were able to consolidate some of their positions. This resulted in a renewal of effort along the Isonzo.
Cadorna had to contend with growing dissatisfaction, both within the army and in the population as a whole. There was little that he could do about the views of civilians, but for a time, there was also nothing that even ranking politicians could do about him, either. He had been guaranteed a free hand in military matters, and even tried to exert power over the politicians; he failed, however, when he sought the removal of Interior Minister Orlando.
Within the military, however, he acted as he saw fit. He fired generals regularly when their performance failed to live up to his expectations. Harsher punishments awaited unruly soldiers, even as discontent grew among them. As Cadorna himself said at one point, “The country was undisciplined and so was the army: we have taken care of the problem by the usual and proper means, the shooting of insubordinates to prevent the sparks from turning into a fire.”
Shortly after Cadorna’s troops reached their high-water mark in the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo, the Germans and Austrians launched a joint attack that robbed them of all of their gains, and pushed the battle lines deep into Italian territory. Sometimes called the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, it is generally known by its own name, the Battle of Caporetto. Between October 24 and November 12, the Italians were driven from the eastern side of the Isonzo to a new defensive line on the river Piave; 275,000 Italian soldiers surrendered along the way.
In perhaps his finest moment, Cadorna succeeded in mustering a viable defense. He understood, however, that it was not remotely enough to stave off dismissal, and so he resigned as Chief of Staff. He was replaced by General Armando Diaz, although he was permitted for a short while to play a formal role in the war effort by serving on the Supreme War Council, a consultative body created at the Rapallo Conference to improve cooperation among the Western Allies.
In failure, Cadorna achieved what he could never accomplish by his tepid victories: the galvanizing of Italian sentiment behind the war. The disaster of Caporetto brought a greater sense of common purpose and shared risk to the Italian population than it had hitherto known. This did nothing for Cadorna’s own legacy, however. In 1924, Benito Mussolini attempted to help his former commander by promoting him to Field Marshal, although this did nothing to help his place in history. Cadorna died in 1928.
Forty, Simon. World War I: A Visual Encyclopedia. PRC Publishing, 2002
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. Arms & Armour, 1996
Hickey, Michael. The First World War (4): The Mediterranean Front 1914-1923. Osprey, 2002
Livesey, Anthony. Great Battles of World War I. Smithmark Publishers, Inc. 1997
Ibid. The Historical Atlas of World War I. Holt, Henry & Co., Inc. 1994
Strachan, Hew. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford, 2001
Westwell, Ian. The Complete Illustrated History of World War I. Anness Publishing, Ltd., 2008
Willmott, H.P. World War I. Covent Garden Books, 2003
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