Italian high command shows merciless discipline
It is Sunday 27 June 1915. It is the 53rd week after the shooting in Sarajevo.
The Forest of Argonne between the Champagne and Lorraine is the stage of a German offensive, where also lieutenant Erwin Rommel plays a part as commander of a regiment.
Army group Mackensen advances in Galicia, while the Austrians are fully occupied with the Russians between the rivers Bug and Vistula.
During a war meeting in Posen the German kaiser decides to continue the offensive in the east, but he prefers the plans of his Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn to the strategy of the royal couple Hindenburg and Ludendorff.
Parliament in London agrees to a munitions law which makes British industry subject to the importance of the war effort by limiting the freedom of both employers and employees considerably.
In Stockholm a British committee arrives to discuss trade relations with neutral Sweden.
The South African campaign in German South West Africa is concluded with a victory near Otavi.
And after a seven-day bombardment the Italians start the attack on the town of Gorizia, near Trieste, under the command of the ruthless General Luigi Cadorna.
When in 1961 historian Alan Clark expressed his view on the First World War, he gave his book the significant title Lions led by donkeys. He borrowed this sneer from a conversation the two German generals Erich Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann are said to have had. When Ludendorff remarked that the British soldiers fought like lions, Hoffmann is supposed to have replied: ‘True. But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys’.
There is some serious doubt whether this short dialogue actually took place, but the picture remains. To many the Great War is essentially the story of brave front soldiers and gutless chateau generals. But other opinions can also be heard. The writer James Hayward for example sees in the simplification of lions and donkeys a superficial and damaging war myth. According to him it ignores the fact that the commanders of the Great War found it hard to use the latest technologies and tactics in a war of an unprecedented scale. Generally speaking they made the most of it. So Hayward says.
Whatever new insights historians may gain, it is to be hoped that they will at least keep one donkey in the stable. His name is Luigi Cadorna, the commander in chief of the Italian army, though the king held that position in name. The monarch was also the only person of authority to whom Cadorna wished to be accountable. No other commanding officer showed such lack of compassion, such disdain for especially his own soldiers as Luigi Cadorna.
The Italians are considered the worst led, wordt fed, worst clad and worst equipped soldiers in the Great War. Understanding each other was already a problem. Different dialects kept the ranks divided. It is in favour of Cadorna that already long before the war he had stressed the appalling condition of the Italian army. But it speaks against him that this was no reason for him to treat his human resources with the utmost care.
Cadorna’s most gruesome exploit is decimation, to which he urged his commanding officers in the field. Decimation is a ruthless form of castigation, going back to the days of the Romans, though they must have used it sparingly. In units that failed collectively every tenth man was picked out and mercilessly executed. That should teach the comrades to perform better in the next attack.
It is reminiscent of the executions of traumatized boys, who at the moment suprême did not have the guts to leave the trenches. Shot at dawn. Those were the words written by the administrators after the names of these so-called deserters. But the complete arbitrariness of decimation concealed an additional dimension of ruthlessness. The heart-rending executions have been presented by the American writer Ernest Hemingway in his 1929 novel A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway borrowed from his own experiences. He was active on the Italian front for the Red Cross.
It was sheer terror that Cadorna unleashed on his own troops. And there were other methods to maintain discipline as well. During an attack he ordered machine guns to be put up behind their own lines. Whoever stayed behind during an offensive, risked being shot in the back. It must be said though that this was not an exclusively Italian custom. If the enemy took an Italian prisoner, his fate was certainly not to be denied. This was because Italian high command refused to send food parcels to their own soldiers who were taken prisoner of war, as was customary in other countries. Cadorna feared that these parcels would fuel the urge among his troops to capitulate.
Italian high command had a deeply rooted distrust of their own men. Cadorna dismissed 217 generals during the war. Between 1915 and 1918 330,000 Italian soldiers were accused of having committed a criminal offence, of whom 61 per cent were declared guilty. No other warring country showed such callous statistics.
Cadorna himself had no significant combat experience, but he was of a military family. His father was no less a person than Raffaele Cadorna, who conquered Rome on the papal troops in 1870. Raffaele’s heroic status added extra lustre to his son Luigi. But now the war against the Austrians offered junior the opportunity to actually follow in his father’s footsteps.
The border between Austria and Italy was 650 kilometres long. Two regions qualified for an Italian offensive. One of the two, Trentino, was abondoned because the mountain passes there were heavily defended by the Austrians. Throughout the war the Italians had to take Austrian counter attacks into account in this part of South Tyrol. For his offensive strategy Cadorna stuck to the valley of the Isonzo river, which has its source in Slovenia and flows via Italy into the Adriatic Sea. The Julian Alps appear behind it. That must have been an attractive perspective for Cadorna, conquering the Alps of Julius Caesar.
The fighting along the Austro-Italian front extended into the high mountains. The Great War started to use Hunters of the Alps on skis, while heavy artillery had to be hoisted across rocks with the greatest possible effort. In 2008 Mark Thompson’s book The White War appeared. This white war took place on impossible territory, barren and cold. ‘Imagine the flat or gently rolling horizon of Flanders,’ Thompson writes, ‘tilting at 30 or 40 degrees, made of grey limestone that turns blinding white in summer.’ It should be added that in this landscape of peeks and valleys the Italians were usually on lower ground and the Austrians high up.
It was a military challenge the greatest genius would have had to work extremely hard on. But the Italians were lumbered with Luigi Cadorna. And his tactics were roughly the following: order as many soldiers as possible to attack on a front as wide as possible until the other yields. Exhaustion as a battle plan did not work with the Italians either. Cadorna did not get any further than deadlocks.
Italy just could not cope with modern warfare. Its army consisted of barely a million soldiers, who could hardly rely on any artillery to back them up. The Italian industry was a long way behind the western countries, while also agriculture lacked resilience. As it would be a short war, the Italians could not care much. But the quick campaign grew into an exhausting battle of equipment, for which Italy did not have the raw materials. It was not until the winter of 1915-1916 that the Italian government managed to start some form of economic mobilization.
There was hardly any lack of pathos. The high priest of Italian nationalism was called Gabriele D’Annunzio. This ‘pornographer of the war’ wrote.: ‘Where masses of butchered flesh fall apart, new life ferments in a sublime manner.’ Cadorna may have expressed it a bit less poetically, but to him human sacrifice was also a form of purification which his tender-hearted Italy could use well.
He tried eleven battles on the Isonzo in order to break through the Austrian lines. When reconstructing them one by one, an occasional Italian success can be found. During the sixth Isonzo battle for example Gorizia was taken, but the objective, the town of Trieste with the Istria peninsula behind it, would never come within reach. Cadorna could afford eleven fruitless massacres around an otherwise idyllic river, which glistens in the sun like an emerald, 140 kilometres long. Cadorna’s tormentor on the other side was Austrian Field Marshal Svetozar Boroević, one of the generals from the Great War who was an absolute master in defending. The specialty of the Croatian field marshal was to recapture as quickly as possible what the enemy had taken with great difficulty.
When in August 1917 the Austrians finally appear to have become numbed, the Germans come to their rescue. During the twelfth Isonzo battle, better known as the Battle of Caporetto, the tide turns. In October and November the Central Powers break through the Cadorna lines with unimaginable ease. Now the effect of his merciless discipline on troop morale also becomes apparent: 265,000 men were taken prisoner. An even larger number deserted. The loss of equipment was in proportion.
The Italian government then thinks the time is right to look around for a new commander in chief. Rome has come to this realization under pressure of especially the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Cadorna’s final order of the day is ‘to die but not to bend’. After him Armando Diaz can try a different approach. Diaz indeed shows compassion for his soldiers. Despite all previous losses, Italy embraces the war in the last year as it has never done before.
Cadorna may have left the front, but his role is certainly not yet over. He travels to Versailles, where on the initiative of the British Prime Minister Lloyd George the Supreme War Council of the allied forces is created. The immediate reason for these joint crisis deliberations is Caporetto.
After the war Cadorna finally ends in the witness box, when from an official investigation into the Caporetto debacle an accusing finger points in his direction. It fills him with sadness. Self-reflection is still not known to the old general. Napoleon would not have done better than he. If his troops had shown more stamina, it would have ended better on the Isonzo. But Cadorna thought that the army was like the people, not to be trusted.
This requires at least some explanation. The Caporetto defeat had been preceded by serious rioting in Turin. They had been Russian situations, but in Italy the army had been prepared to nip a revolution in the bud firmly: 41 dead and over 200 wounded.
Sulking about the defeatism and faint-heartedness of the Italians Luigi Cadorna starts on his memoirs. And then in 1924 he receives a great honour. In the first year of the war the British have already raised him to the peerage in The Most Honourable Order of Bath. Now Italy’s new commander-in-chief Benito Mussolini appoints him Field Marshal, a title which Il Duce also has in store for Armando Diaz.
In 1928 Cadorna complacently dies at the age of 78. Four years later a mausoleum is opened in his honour. It is on the Lago Maggiore, not far from the place where Luigi was born. One can of course visit the mausoleum, but then again one can also abstain from doing so.
Next week: Lord Kitchener
Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)