This week we’re going to break from our normal fare and take a bit of a lark. I thought I ought to substantiate the nearly endless shade towards Luigi Cadorna, Italian Army Chief of Staff from 1914-1917 (though I realize after writing this that what I actually ought to have done is just told the same bad joke about Cadorna 11 times in a row and let that stand as the explanation). I said that Cadorna was my pick for the worst general of World War I. Now, as I noted at the time, there is some stiff competition for that position. While I argued that the tactical problem of trench warfare probably wasn’t solvable by any general, that doesn’t mean that some generals didn’t perform better than others under the difficult conditions imposed by the stalemate.
Now I should be clear here what I mean by ‘worst general.’ What I am assessing here is the fellow who was worst at generaling, rather than the worst human being who happened to be a general. That latter prize probably goes to İsmail Enver Pasha, Ottoman Minister of War from 1914 to 1918, a vain, arrogant strutting sort of man who not only utterly botched the only battle in which he commanded directly (Sarikamish, Dec. 1914 – Jan 1915) but who also then blamed his defeat (falsely) on the Armenians and subsequently instigated and played a key role in the Armenian genocide. He then sold his services to the Soviets, before betraying them to side with the Basmachi movement, which didn’t go particularly well either.
We are also here not investigating to see which WWI leader made the single worst decision. As I’ve noted before, the worst decision in the First World War was having a First World War, though the responsibility for that is diffused across multiple different leading figures.
Luigi Cadorna didn’t, to my knowledge, perpetrate any genocides, though as we’ll see, he was cruel and unreasonable. Nor did he bring Italy to war. The son of Count Raffaele Cadorna (who had led the army which captured Rome, completing the unification of Italy), Cadorna’s political connections, particularly to the king Victor Emmanuel III, made him functionally impossible to remove from command after he was made chief of staff in 1914. For his part, Cadorna seems to have spent about as much time fighting a political battle in Rome as he did fighting the actual war on the Isonzo; Cadorna insisted at the outset that he would only accept the job if he was given unfettered, complete authority. As we’ll see, that complete authority is not going to come with complete responsibility for outcomes. But in any event, this is a good illustration of Cadorna’s personality: bitter, arrogant and callous, but with a cruel authoritarian streak and a profound conviction that all of his mistakes were someone else’s fault.
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Often the failure of generals in WWI goes to their ability to grasp a strategic or operational objective but then fail to plan on how to get it. But Cadorna’s failures run through all three levels of military analysis. At the strategic level, Italy’s position entering the war was fairly stark: the Italians were by some distance the weakest of the major powers. Let’s establish a baseline here: Austria-Hungary entered the war in 1914 with a mobilized army across all fronts of perhaps 3,000,000 men, with 1,800 artillery pieces. Britain, which relied on professionals (Volunteer divisions of Kitchener’s New Army would first see service only in the summer of 1915; conscription wasn’t introduced in Britain until January, 1916) entered the war with nearly a million of them. Italy went to war, in 1915 (that is, a year later) with just 875,000 men and only 180 artillery pieces. 180! Recall that the British opened up at the Somme (in 1916) with some 1,437 artillery pieces which was (famously!) not anywhere near enough. As noted, even in 1915 – such as at the Second Battle of Artois (in May), the French and British were using 1,368 artillery pieces to support their attack. The Italians were ludicrously unprepared for the war they had joined.
So Cadorna has a small, fragile and relatively weak army to work with. Conscription would eventually put millions more Italians in the ranks (and slowly make the equipment situation less of a disaster), but of course everyone else was doing that too and even then it was clear from a simple exercise in demography that Italy’s manpower reserves were likely to be brittle. An equally simple exercise in economic statistics would suggest that while Italy’s army might be made minimally sufficient in equipment (the Italians eventually end up deploying well over a thousand artillery pieces on the Isonzo front, though the quality of their artillery never matched what was available on either side of the Western Front), it would never be excellent. Strategically then, Cadorna had the one army; it was small and weak and it was also effectively all Italy had. Moreover Italy, only recently unified (recall, Cadorna’s father had been directly involved!) was still politically fragile itself and might not take well for horrible casualties. So Cadorna’s army had to be husbanded carefully, spent only in great need and for great benefit.
Instead of doing literally any of that, Cadorna opted to pursue the highest operational tempo of any front of the war. I can’t stress this enough: between May 1915 and October 1917, the French launched (or supported) four offensives (Second Artois, Third Artois/SecondChampaign/Loos, the Somme and the Nivelle Offensive; I’m not counting Second Arras as that was a Commonwealth operation in which the French had little part), plus being on the defensive at Verdun. Of course there were lots of minor operations too, but that’s five major operations on the Western Front, where the French were almost totally focused. In contrast, in that same time frame, Cadorna – who again, has the smallest, weakest major army – launches eleven (11)(eleven)(XI)(1011)(I𐤗)(ΙΑ)(eleven!?!) offensives on the Isonzo River.
So again, Luigi Cadorna looked at his army – the smallest, weakest army of any of the major powers and also an army that was absolutely not expendable – and opted for an offensive operational tempo more than twice the speed of his far richer, more industrialized, more numerous, more politically solidified allies.
Hits the Spot
And alright, I hear you say, he’s clearly chosen the wrong operational tempo. But what about the choice of location? Well let me tell you about the Isonzo River basin; running south from the Alps in a series of ‘s’-curves, the Isonzo River basin has twin virtues. The first is that it is an absolutely terrible place to have a battle. Not only does the river itself disrupt the battlefield but on its Eastern side it backs up against either the Julian Alps or the Dinaric Alps (both parts of the larger Alpine mountain range) or, if you are really lucky, into dead-end valleys which themselves back up into those mountains. The one exception is a narrow corridor through the Vipava Valley that leads towards Ljubljana (mind you, it doesn’t lead there in any immediate sense). And to be clear, these are serious mountains, not some glorified rolling hills. Not only does the height make assaults a problem, the rocky terrain makes digging trenches hard and also makes fragmenting weapons more lethal (because they skip off of the rocks rather than embedding into mud). This is an awful place to have a battle.
But fortunately, there is also no good strategic reason to have a battle here either! The initial Italian goal was the village of Gorizia, a position of functionally no strategic value, but which had been fortified (because of course it had). The core Italian goal was Trieste. Taking Trieste on the coast and so denying the Austrians their primary port might have mattered except, as you may recall, this was a war where the largest Mediterranean naval power (Britain) and the second largest (France) and the third largest (Italy) were all on the same side, making the Austro-Hungarian navy incredibly useless no matter who owned Trieste. Meanwhile going overland – and my Austrian and Slovenian readers will need to pardon me here – but going overland there is just nothing of value anywhere close to being obtainable behind the lines here. The Sava river valley – the first place where one might hit key logistics hubs, population centers, and so on – is about fifty miles away in a straight line, through the Alps. Words cannot communicate how utterly hopeless the idea of a fifty mile advance on this front would be; it would be challenging to do that at any speed even if the enemy quit and went on holiday for a month. The logistics of it were practically hopeless.
Say what you will about the often foolish British and French offensives on the Western Front, but their locations at least made sense. That was actually one of the problems: there were only a handful of spots along the Western Front where a major offensive was possible. You needed a spot where the terrain was, if not favorable at least not awful which also had something worth taking relatively close to the front line (often these were major railway junctions which were key logistics hubs) so that an offensive might achieve something beyond merely shoving the enemy backwards so that everyone could tee up and try again. The thing was that the Germans could read maps as well as the British and the French and so largely knew there were only so many places on the front likely to light up with major attacks. Of course none of these offensives reached those objectives, but one can at least look at the battle plans and understand what the generals were hoping to do.
Now one might well ask why Cadorna wanted Trieste so much. Well, the answer is that many Italians considered that Trieste and the entire peninsula of Istria to its South ought to be part of the relatively new Italian nation. The Italian plan was thus that, by occupying Trieste and Istria, when the war ended they could demand these territories at the peace table once the allies won. Except of course that is putting the cart before the horse and the entire road before both of them because it assumes an Entente victory, a thing which the capture of Trieste would do almost nothing to bring about. In the event all of this was pointless; the Italians didn’t occupy Istria until the armistice and only took Trieste by amphibious operations 8 days before the end of war, after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian state which had taken place the month before. They got their territorial demands anyway.
Just to drive the pointlessness here to maximum, Italy then lost Istria except for Trieste to Yugoslavia after WWII; the peninsula is now mostly in Croatia, with a small corridor in Slovenia.
It is worth comparing this situation to Conrad von Hötzendorf’s actions along the Carpathians; Hötzendorf is another strong contender for the worst general of WWI and the Carpathians are frequently pointed to as his worst moment. On the one hand, launching three offensives in the Carpathian mountains in winter was monumentally stupid; on the other hand you can at least understand what Hötzendorf was thinking. On the other side of those mountains, 138,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers were trapped in the fortress network of Przemyśl and Hötzendorf wanted to break the siege. This was, to be clear, an enormous blunder, with Austrian losses in the mountains far exceeding the size of the garrison they were notionally going to rescue and also achieving nothing. But there was at least an objective that might have some sort of military significance.
There was nothing beyond the Isonzo except mountains. Taking the first set of mountains merely awarded one the privilege of attempting to assault the next set of yet higher mountains.
Le Feu Tue
So we might say that Cadorna failed at the strategic level of analysis, selecting the wrong objectives and failing to realize that the damage he inflicted on his army (and consequently on the fragile fabric of Italian politics) would outweigh any benefit he might gain. He then also failed at the operational level, selecting both the wrong location and operational tempo, neither giving his army time to actually come up to the strength where an offensive might succeed but at the same time also picking a location where no amount of strength was likely to accomplish much of anything.
Which just leaves tactics, at which Cadorna was also a failure.
Cadorna, like many generals in the First World War, believed in the supremacy of morale as a factor in battle, which also explains his penchant for the offensive. Pre-war military theorists (e.g. Ardant du Picq, but also Clausewitz, so drink!) had noted that being on the offensive tended to improve the morale of an army and that prolonged periods on the defense sapped morale and eroded discipline. And that is true! Soldiers who think they are marching towards decisive victory or at least a solid step towards the end of the conflict have more motivation; leave soldiers around doing nothing but passing the time and warding off enemy attacks and their enthusiasm cools. You can see the same thing play out in sports; the team that is moving the ball forward, hoping to tie the game or pull ahead becomes more active and more aggressive, while the team with a strong lead just trying to hold on until the buzzer sounds feels every bit of weariness.
Of course the problem with this observation is that the enthusiasm of the attack only holds so long as the attacks actually succeed in bringing victory closer. What is exciting is forward momentum, or at least the promise of it. If soldiers no longer expect attacks to accomplish anything, the offensive loses its mental advantage. But many generals in WWI assumed that superior morale wins wars (which it does) and that morale was always best on the attack (and it is) and therefore concluded that the side on the attack would thus inevitably win, failing to recognize that war is complicated and morale, while a principle factor, is not the only factor.
But this meant that Cadorna’s tactical sense was oriented around the morale of the offensive in a war where the dominant element was firepower. Especially in the rough, mountainous terrain of the Alps, ‘breakout’ was effectively impossible. It is hard to imagine how breakout and maneuver would have been achieved in that terrain even without the trench stalemate, but Cadorna’s battle-plans pursued the goal anyway. Moreover, nearly every assault the Italians launched was grossly under-supported by the all-important artillery (because they had little of it); as far as I can tell it isn’t really until the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo that Italian artillery was really up to the task of supporting an offensive.
It didn’t help, of course, that Cadorna had drawn poorly when it came to his opposite number. His opponent here was not the also-clownishly-incompetent Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (who was mostly focused on the fighting with Russia), but General der Infanterie (soon to be Generaloberst and then Feldmarschall) Svetozar Boroević, arguably the best general Austria-Hungary produced during the war. Recognizing he was outnumbered, Boroević used his control of the heights effectively and defended-in-depth so that even the capture of Gorizia in August 1916 didn’t seriously disrupt his defensive position. By contrast, Cadorna, having already failed as an offensive tactician, also failed as a defensive one: the principle of defense in depth, already well known to anyone even remotely paying attention in the war in 1916, wasn’t really implemented in the Italian positions in 1917, which is part of the reason for the disaster at Caporetto.
Because Cadorna thought that discipline and morale were the key components of victory (and also because he seems to have just generally been a cruel, uncaring and authoritarian person) he attempted to enforce both in his army through coercion and cruelty. Cadorna executed around 750 men for cowardice (to my knowledge the highest rate in any army of the war), presided over a military justice regime that convicted something like 3.6% of his army of one disciplinary charge or the other. He dismissed an incredible total of 217 officers during his tenure, frequently because he felt they were not committed enough or aggressive enough and when his army began to fall apart at Caporetto, he ordered the summary execution of officers whose units retreated. It turns out that actually adopting a ‘the beatings will continue until morale improves’ command style does not actually improve morale.
But all of this, at last, brings us to the reason why Cadorna tops my list for the worst general of WWI…
He Refused To Learn
Joseph Joffre’s offensives in 1915 were misguided, but by 1916 he had managed to understand that the war was to won based on attrition and had started to work out what a successful strategy in those confines would look like (albeit by that time his political capital was largely spent). The early war performance of Ferdinand Foch and Douglas Haig often comes in, quite fairly, for opprobrium; both men for devotees of the offensive. Yet by the end of the war, during the Hundred Days offensive, both of them are leading what appears to be a well-oiled, effective offensive machine (at least in as much as such was possible in WWI). Erich von Falkenhayn’s plan for the Battle of Verdun was a dismal failure, but his performance in Romania and Palestine was much better and he ended the war with an earned reputation of being highly capable.
These men tried, and failed, and then learned. Some of them (…Haig) did not learn particularly quickly. But they recognized failure and while many of them engaged in a lot of blame-shifting, they took at least enough responsibility to try to change things in order to succeed the next time. Perhaps if we attack somewhere else, or with different tactics, or in concert with other armies, or with different weapons, or with better preparation, or with new technologies, perhaps that will work.
Luigi Cadorna refused to learn. This is a general that launched effectively the same doomed battle eleven times, in the same place, in roughly the same way, against the same opponent, achieving nothing each time and yet opting to do it again. Now one might say this isn’t entirely fair because the eleven battles of the Isonzo were not in exactly the same place; the active zone of the front was about 30 miles wide. But the terrain, materiel and technological conditions which made an assault at any given point along those 30 miles pointless made an assault at every point along the line pointless. If I attempt to punch through a brick wall, break my right hand and then move ten feet over and punch the same brick wall with my left hand, we would not credit me for learning.
This isn’t to say there were no tactical improvements on the Isonzo front. Italian artillery improved steadily over the war, in terms of quantity and effectiveness. The Italians also developed dedicated, specialist mountain troops (the Alpini). And on a front that featured the lion’s share of the Italian army, but only a single Austro-Hungarian army which, due to the low priority of the front, didn’t receive much in the way of reinforcement until late in 1917, repeated hammerings did slowly turn the balance in favor of the Italians (who in any event kept making effectively no progress in battles where they regularly outnumbered their opponents 3:1).
Despite substantial local superiority in man (and after 1915, artillery), Cadorna’s offensives weren’t even good as an attrition strategy. The Italians traded casualties unfavorably with the Austro-Hungarians in almost every engagement, sometimes catastrophically so. The instinct here is to pardon Cadorna for this because he was the attacker, but as we’ve discussed the attacker in the WWI trench stalemate could achieve favorable casualty ratios and often did. In eleven battles on the Isonzo, Cadorna managed this only twice and never by a meaningful margin.
Cadorna responded to failure not by learning but by blaming his subordinates and what he saw as the poor morale of the army. This point I find incredible; by April 1917, the French army on the Western Front was in open mutiny despite being led honestly less callously and more ably than the Italians. Yet the Italians, at the same time, were gearing up for the Tenth pointless battle on the Isonzo, launched in early May. For all of the failures of command and leadership, the average Italian soldier, it seems to me, can hardly be faulted for lack of motivation, having thrown himself at the same unassailable rocks time and time again by this point. Nevertheless, Cadorna both used this excuse to avoid meaningful changes in his overall strategy and also to justify even more draconian crackdowns in discipline which of course had the end effect of causing the demoralization he believed himself to be fighting.
The consequences were predictable. By the end of the 11th Battle of the Isonzo, both the Austro-Hungarian and Italian armies in the sector were worn down to a nub; the difference being, of course, that the Italian armies in the sector represented most of the Italian army, whereas the Austro-Hungarian forces could be reinforced not only by other Austro-Hungarian armies but also by the Germans. Italian ‘successes’ had also moved them from having the Isonzo River itself as a barrier defense to being perched precariously on the foothills of the Julian Alps.
And thus the Battle of Caporetto. Italian forces were not effectively deployed for defense-in-depth (around Caporetto, Italian forces hadn’t even shifted into a defensive posture because it was assumed the terrain there was unsuitable for heavy offensive operations) when the combined German and Austro-Hungarian forces attacked. For about three years the Italians had hammered on this front relentlessly and gained no more than 20 miles at any point (and much less at most points); the counter-offensive advanced a hundred miles in three weeks, with the front stabilizing at last on the Piave River, dangerously close to Venice.
Cadorna responded to this disaster by ordering that officers whose units retreated be shot, a pointless gesture given that units that didn’t retreat were just being forced to surrender (while he himself fled all the way to Padua, 25 miles behind Venice, because of course he did). In the end the Italians lost 13,000 dead, 30,000 wounded and around 275,000 men taken prisoner (the German/Austro-Hungarian casualties were a fraction of this, estimated between 20-70,000 of all kinds). Among other things, the Italians – having spent years slowly building up a decent force of artillery – lost more than 2,500 artillery pieces. At last the Entente powers were forced to intervene, with Ferdinand Foch sending six divisions from the Western Front to stabilize the Italian front on the condition that Cadorna be sacked from command. He was, on November 9, 1917.
Cadorna is a heady mix of command failings. Authoritarian and cruel, he demotivated rather than motivated his soldiers. His offensives were fought with the wrong tactics, in the wrong place, at the wrong tempo, for the wrong reasons. But more than any of this, what puts Cadorna at the top of my list of worst generals of the war is his failure to learn meaningful lessons from any of this, despite being left in command on the same front, facing the same opponent, from 1915 to 1917. In the end Cadorna’s failure to learn anything from either his own mistakes or from the open-air failure-dissertation that was the Western Front (that Italian positions were not defended in depth in 1917 is shockingly incompetent on its own) really does appear to be uniquely awful.
What ought Cadorna have done? I think it is fair to say that the lack of a compelling strategic objective in the area combined with the awful terrain should have suggested that the Isonzo ought to have been a relatively quiet front. Of course the Italians couldn’t do nothing and it is understandable that they wouldn’t want to simply send their armies off to fight in France, but Italian forces could have been better utilized in the Mediterranean theater, helping the British disassemble the Ottoman Empire, for instance. Alternately Cadorna might have, accepting that the Isonzo was, for political reasons, where he must fight, adopted a slower operational tempo with carefully planned attacks allowing for sufficient time to build up artillery, shells and equipment and so perhaps achieve favorable or at least neutral casualty exchanges (and providing just enough pressure on the front to force the Central Powers to defend it, without wearing out the Italian army).
In the end, Cadorna of course did none of these things, but instead bashed his army’s head into the same limestone wall eleven times until at long last the wall fell on him.
193 thoughts on “Collections: Luigi Cadorna Was The Worst”
“What ought Cadorna have done?”
Well, with the #1, 2 & 3 local navies (one of them additionally being the leading world naval power), he could’ve proposed to the British & French blocking the Austrians in their harbours, then launching an invasion further down the coast.
Say in Dalmatia, and then work north-south; especially handy when the Greeks end up Entente, and since Italy joined before the Serbians fell. Sure, you could get boxed against the Ionian sea and done in; but you’d have a much larger frontage for the Central Powers to have to engage, and they would have to balance their Russian (and Serbian) Front demands.
Heck, you’d have cover from east-based offensives via the mountain line that parallels the coast. And bonus; you can shout Roman! as you “retake” “Illyricum”.
Is this realistic? Nah. But it is a fun idea. And possibly less wasteful than assaulting the same river valley eleven times.
> Well, with the #1, 2 & 3 local navies (one of them additionally being the leading world naval power), he could’ve proposed to the British & French blocking the Austrians in their harbours, then launching an invasion further down the coast.
While on the surface, it sounds reasonable, the idea does break down once you zoom down and look at the details of the Adriatic Sea. While the Austrian Navy was undoubtedly outweighed by the Entente Navies as a whole, it was able to take advantage of the fact it ocupied a very strong brown water defensive position. The Balkan coastline of the Adriatic is a mess of littoral peninsulas, islets, and islands, which the Austrians fully capitalized on by integrating their fleet with shore batteries, minefields, and small attack craft like torepedo boats. This all meant while the Austrian Navy had very little offensive capability, it could still be mustered as a powerful enough defensive force to make any amphibious landing far too risky of a proposition for the Entente powers to ever seriously contemplate it.
I’ll repeat what I’ve said in earlier posts, I’ve never done much reading on WW1, and from what I’ve read and talked to some friends I generally formed the vague impression of Hötzendorf as the worst general of WW1, but this is pretty damning.
Remember the competition is stiff.
Cadorna is the supreme blockhead of the war but Oskar Potiorek deserves a dishonorable mention for failing to successfully invade Serbia twice in 1914 and suffering massive defeats at the hands of the outnumbered and outgunned Serbian Army It didn’t help that despite being in his late 60s and in poor health Radomir Putnik was a brilliant general but he should have been able to win something. Instead Serbia held out until late 1915 when Von Mackensen was called in with a massive invasion force and a combination of exhaustion, lack of supplies and typhus finally took down the Serbs.
I am not sure about that. Sure, Potiorek was far from competent, but keep in mind two things. First, Austria had only annexed Bosnia recently, and so many troops were in fact kept behind on police and occupation duties (and Bosnia, due to its multiethnic nature, was always a powder keg). This meant that Austrian forces were, in fact, outnumbered by the Serbian army in the field despite having more troops on paper. Second, Serbian army had a very good defensive position, much like Austrians in this campaign. And third, Potiorek was just stupid enough not to realize that.
Well, he said in the post that the biggest mistake of WWI was starting WWI, and the general with the most personal responsibility for starting the war was Hötzendorf.
I would add that this is worse- Cadorna snatched defeat from the jaws of victory twice, at the 6th and 10th Izonzo campaigns. The first case the offensive was stopped for three days so the Duke of Aosta could have a parade through Gorizia, the second Cadorna didn’t double down on a breakthrough because he didn’t trust his subordinates/didn’t want them to get the credit.
I still think Enver Pasha has a shot at being the worst. Italy ultimately won the war, and attained most of her strategic objectives; sure, Cadorna killed way too many Italians, but ask the French if a million casualties at Verdun justified getting Alsace-Lorraine back.
Pasha, unique among the major commanders, was also a political leader- he was one of three dictators of the Ottoman Sultanate; whereas fools like Cadorna and Hotzendorf were cheerleading the war, Enver Pasha was directly responsible for dragging the Turks into the war. And their objectives were insane- Turanistic fantasies of conquering Russian Central Asia, or “making the Ottomans Great Again” by “liberating” Egypt and North Africa…. bearing in mind that the Ottomans were much weaker than Italy, and joining the weaker side, including attacking the British Empire, I feel that Pasha takes the cake.
The 6th battle of the Isonzo failed to achieve breakthrough because of a lack of preparation — for once the planning called for limited objectives: the establishment of a few small bridgeheads across the Isonzo. They didn’t even anticipate capturing Gorizia! Neither Cadorna nor Boroevic understood how weak the Austrian position was compared to the Italian at the start of the battle. By the time Cadorna had realized that the Austrian positions behind Gorizia were vulnerable, he was unable to attack because the heavy artillery couldn’t cross the light pontoon bridges (they had been designed to support small infantry bridgeheads). Poor preparation and not grasping the developing situation are failures that should absolutely be thrown at Cadorna’s feet, but are very different from stopping to throw a parade . . .
Failure in the tenth battle is more complicated. The Italian plan called for the 2nd Army under Capello to launch the assault, diverting Austrian forces to his sector, then to send the heavy artillery to the south where the 3rd Army would launch an offensive. The assault under Capello went badly to begin with, but it did draw away forces from the south (it’s not clear if the Italians were aware of this). Capello, however, convinced Cadorna that he could meet his objectives if he held on to the heavy artillery for longer. When the 3rd Army finally began its assault, it was initially successful, but the delay meant that Austrian reinforcements from the Eastern Front arrived shortly thereafter and stabilized the lines. I don’t think one needs to refer to any sort of rivalry between Cadorna and the Duke of Aosta (popular commander of the 3rd Army) to explain this bad generalship. (Thompson writes that Cadorna’s battle plans always tended toward “incoherence”)
I don’t think Cadorna deserves credit for fighting on the same side as the UK and France. That wasn’t his call, and it’s not that impressive. Nor do I think Pasha deserves blame for fighting under the Ottomans.
The fact that Pasha was partially responsible for the Ottomans joining the war at all should definitely count against him, though. Not sure how that compares to horrible battlefield performance, though; they’re apples-and-oranges mistakes.
Minor point, but Enver Pasha’s surname was not “Pasha”. Being a Turk before the 1920s, he didn’t have a surname in the Western sense. His name was Ismail Enver, and talking about him as “Enver” is perfectly fine. “Pasha” is a title of rank (both civil and military), very roughly equivalent to either “General”, “Lord” or “Governor” in a Western context.
Oh my. I always did wonder what the thinking was behind the Isonzo campaigns and…it seems the answer was “there wasn’t”.
I believe this belongs firmly under the “Oh No!” tag.
I think this really is one of those cases where the military value was nil but there were sound-ish political reasons. At least for the first few battles.
Political value, sure, but that only goes so far towards justifying a literal and figurative uphill battle. (Never mind the next ten.)
Would an amphibious assault on Dalmatia have been within Italian capabilities at the time? I imagine Cadorna would have sent the whole fleet to the bottom of the Adriatic in the attempt, but theoretically speaking?
Churchill wanted to do this in WWII and then “race north to Vienna” before the Soviets could get it. The main issue was that Tito made it clear that he wouldn’t cooperate with any British landings in Yugoslavia, but my understanding is that the Royal Navy was also deeply concerned about the potential landing sites. Lots of rocky cliffs overlooking the harbors, very few roads. Easy to fortify and not easy to break out of.
Also, I believe the K.u.K Kriegsmarine generally was able to hold its own against the Royal Italian Navy within the Adriatic. I think they’d have needed British or French support, and after Gallipoli that was going to be a stretch.
Churchill seemed to love taking the long way around to find the ‘soft underbelly’ while ignoring how difficult the terrain in the ‘soft underbelly’ would make offensive operations.
Churchill also had an obsession with amphibious assaults that bordered on the pathological. One of his big plans during WWI before they forced him out of the Admiralty was to take the Royal Navy into the Baltic and land multiple Russian corps in Pomerania in conjunction with a Danish invasion of Holstein-Schleswig.
Neither the Danes, Russians, or the Royal Navy was particularly fond of the idea.
It probably stems from being attached to the Admiralty for a lot of his career. WW1 was not exactly a navally ‘exciting’ war, almost all of the action and thus all of the political gain was happening on land. Looking for a way to get more out of the extremely strong RN is bureaucratically inevitable.
That was Jackie Fisher’s idea, and the *competitor* to Churchill’s Gallipoli Plan.
Bismarck was asked what would happen if the British landed in Pomerania. His reply: “The police would arrest them.”
Denmark was the real winner of WWI, regaining North Schleswig without firing a shot.
> Bismarck was asked what would happen if the British landed in Pomerania. His reply: “The police would arrest them.”
Do you remember when you learned about this? It seems that it is sole place on internet where this quote appears
I think part of the explanation for this goes back to the Napoleonic Wars. Britain’s primary contribution to the land fight against Napoleon was in the “soft underbelly” of Spain, and I suspect that Churchill, being a student of history, thought that replicating that was a splendid idea.
Also, during WWII, Churchill’s Mediterranean obsession was at least partially motivated by wanting to steal a march on Stalin. Had the invasion of Italy gone half as well as Churchill hoped it would (which it was never going to), the Western Allies might have at least made it to Prague and Vienna before the Soviets did, and maybe even to Budapest.
Unfortunately, you have those pesky mountains in the way…
Churchill never did understand what those contour lines on maps meant. Too used to reading maritime charts or something.
I’d say the Italian invasion was successful enough to justify the effort. No, it didn’t win the war, but it put Western Allied troops on the mainland a year sooner than they’d otherwise have been there, and it wound up flipping Italy to the Allies. This massively improved the naval situation, and flipped something like 400,000 troops from Axis to Allies, or at least to POWs. They were bad troops, sure, but a few field armies is still nothing to sneer at.
Continuing to attack seriously with the line being held by well-dug-in Germans was foolish, but the initial invasion made a lot of sense.
The Western Allies almost DID make it to Prague at the end of WW2.
Pilsen, the next major city in Czechoslovakia to the west of Prague, was liberated by the US Army. (There are plenty of statues, a Patton Museum and a whole week of festivities every May in the city.)
But the Western Allies stuck to previous agreements about which power would control which country and withdrew. (Just as they did from Torgau, which is deep inside East Germany.)
My understanding is that part of the point of this agreement was to prevent some things that could have been disastrously bad and that any Allied commander of 1945 would have worried about.
1) Friendly fire incidents on a large scale. Western-Allied and Soviet troops were unfamiliar with each other and advancing rapidly into Germany at this point. Getting the two armies intermingled while there were still German holdouts taking potshots at both sides could result in disastrous clashes.
2) Needing to be able to agree on SOME kind of line of demarcation in advance. If you just let both armies advance to “lol wherever you can reach,” with key towns being occupied by “whoever gets there first,” there’s going to be a lot of border gore. You could have situations where a bold, ambitious Soviet motor rifle division has taken up a position that plants them squarely on the supply line for an equally bold, ambitious American division that advanced past them along a different route. Or where large forces from each side have each other effectively surrounded, creating some amount of fear of what would happen in the case of a betrayal, or a simple mistake as per (1).
This is the kind of situation where it’s a lot safer and easier to agree on lines of demarcation in advance based on where you think you can reach.
well, Churchill was deployed on the Afghanistan – Pakistan border as part of the Malakand border force, which would be similar conditions to the Alps (maybe less cold). But then it was against an inferior opponent (in everything except numbers), maybe that skewed his vision of combat in mountains / rugged environment
Keeping the Soviets out of Central Europe wasn’t a terrible idea though.
Keeping the Soviets out of Central Europe at the end of World War II wasn’t a terrible objective in and of itself, but when planning a campaign, having a worthwhile objective is at best half the starting condition. The objective also needs to be achievable.
So we can split the “try to keep the Soviets out of Central Europe by invading through Italy” idea into two parts.
Part one is “does it make sense to invade Italy in the first place, back in early 1943 when that decision was made, based on that?”
Part two is “does it make sense, in early to mid-1945, to aggressively push forward motorized units from the Western Allies to grab as many central European cities as possible, as far and as deep as possible into Europe, in an attempt to get there first and call ‘dibs?’ ”
The answer to part one is “arguably.” If we posit Italian military collapse (which happened) and German failure at taking over the defense and fighting a delaying action up the Italian peninsula (not so much)… Well, then invading through Italy creates a more favorable strategic situation for Western Allied attempts to penetrate into Central Europe eventually, though the exact path that leads from 1943 (when the Germans are still tooling up for Kursk) to that eventual attempt to take Prague or Budapest or whatever cannot be foreseen at the time.
But the answer to part two is “no.” By early 1945, the general lines of demarcation and spheres of influence are already a subject of intra-Allied negotiations (the Moscow and Yalta conferences). And as I mentioned a few posts up the chain, it’s simply unrealistic to imagine some notion like “if we can get a division into Prague it means we get to keep the Czech Republic after the war!”
Due to the nature of large troop movements and the fact that a shooting conflict flaring up between Western Allied and Soviet forces would be disastrous, the armies realistically had to plan in advance for where they would go, how they would get there, and what line of demarcation they’d stop on.
You don’t do drag-racing with armies.
You’d think that someone who actually campaigned in difficult terrain, would know better. The man was at Omdurman.
The terrain the Anglo-Sudanese War was fought over could be said to be “difficult,” but it wasn’t what you’d call rugged. It was in the desert, but by the time Churchill showed up personally, there were extensive rail and riverine transport links connecting the army to the rear areas, and they didn’t have to fight their way up or down any mountains to get anywhere.
Omdurman was a classical 19th century battle fought by large formations of men armed with direct fire weapons, on flat terrain that could all be conveniently observed from a single elevated command post… with the wrinkle that the British forces had machine guns and artillery and the Sudanese did not.
Nothing like Alpine warfare.
Churchill’s real experiences campaigning in difficult terrain were with the Malakand Field Force in what is now Pakistan. Notably, this was a war fought where the British side had modern rifles and at least a smattering of artillery, while the Pashtun had few of the former and none of the latter. Again, not representative of World War One conditions.
As others have said, this is a very longstanding British obsession since at least 1800 and it comes down to an unwillingness to take heavy casualties but a more or less unlimited willingness to spend money on equipment and pay others to take casualties (hi Americans! Recognise anything?). WW1 was the only war in which the British really failed to achieve this and where their casualties as a proportion of population were even in the same ballpark as those of other major combatants – even then they were only half of those of the poor bloody Italians. They’re still pissed about it. Amphibious landings were typically designed to use their huge expensive navy & logistics prowess to either knock weaker enemy nations out of the war, or get wavering nations to commit their precious manpower to join in on the British side (the 1943 Italian campaign was a twofer in this respect). The objective was to score spectaculars whilst other nations (assorted Germans, Austrians & Russians in the Napoleonic Wars, France and Russia in WW1 and the Soviets in WW2) did the sordid business of engaging the main enemy armies, with all the killing and dying that entailed.
The American Way Of Way is to beat our enemies to death with our massive logistical club. Since at least WWII, this also includes our mad science. (Kids, ask someone what a Variable Timed fuse is, and what the first versions used as control circuits.)
There’s nothing wrong with playing to your strengths.
There is if your strengths don’t achieve the ends you need, or so less well than one of your weak points is actually practically better.
The K.u.K did more than hold its own – it took the offensive with considerable effect and then kept up a vigorous small boat and submarine war in the northern and central Adriatic.
There’s really nowhere along the Dalmatian and Albanian coasts that offers a good entry point to the Balkans – it’s parallel mountain ranges all the way to the Sava. The railway runs down to Salonika for a reason.
On the face of it, if a landing at Trieste went much like Salonica, that would still leave the Italians in possession of Trieste. Which was their major war aim. They would not have to fight their way through the mountains to their objective: They would be there.
Yeah, despite hanging on until 1916 the Gallipoli front starting in February 1915 and bogging down quickly when compared to Italy’s May entry does put paid to the Entente being enthusiastic about a naval run of it.
Very interesting – thanks Brett!
Quick question. Did Luigi Cadorna’s performance here play a role in the rise of Fascism in Italy?
I mean even though the Italians won, you had people after the war were interested in various forms of radical politics just like in Germany, who lost and had discredited leadership. Since for most Italian soldiers and even for civilian Italians the Isonzo River Basin Front would have basically been the entire war. And on that front the Italians would have suffered unmitigated losing. You also mention the fragileness of the political situation in general since Italy was a recently unified country. Thus opinions could have been heated like in countries where the economy and army broke down like the Russian Empire/Soviet Union or countries that straight up lost like Germany.
I don’t know anything specific, but his Wikipedia page says:
Nevertheless, he was made a Field Marshal (Maresciallo d’Italia) in 1924 after Benito Mussolini seized power.
Coming from a total amateur, my guess would be indirectly yes. From what I understand, the main cause for the rise of Fascism in Italy was a sense that they were cheated at the victor’s table and didn’t get enough concessions compared to the cost of what they went through in the war; combined with the sort of postwar economic and social dislocation pretty much everyone was going through at the time.
Cadorna’s high casualty offensives are definitely an important part of how Italians evaluated the cost of the war and the people lost and wounded in his reckless assaults almost certainly contributed to said dislocations. And yeah, viewing your leadership as incompetent and unconcerned with your welfare probably didn’t help.
Exactly. It was the high toll of blood combined with a feeling of not receiving the deserved spoils of war. Italians felt cheated by France and the UK, it felt like a “mutilated victory”.
One early, proto-Fascist and extraordinary outburst of this feeling was the annexation of Rijeka/Fiume in today’s Croatia by Italian irregulars on Christmas of 1920 (i.e. pre-Mussolini):
That’s a big question, but generally the answer is ‘yes.’ Also, my understanding is that at the end of his life Cadorna himself had some fascist sympathies.
I’m not surprised!
According to The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of the proto-fascist Italian poet D’Annunzio, absolutely it contributed to the rise of Fascism.
Wow, what a guy.
the war was to won
local superiority in man
Also, the French word for fire is “feu”, rather than “fue”. Really interesting article overall, it makes me curious about how Italian politics got to such a state that Cadorno was unremovable, when he clearly couldn’t do the job.
Cadorna’s “unremovable” status was likely an artifact of his status in the nobility and family connections (especially to the “Reunification” battles) – and having a good “in” with the Royals probably didn’t hurt, either. At least in being able to cast his position (however dishonestly) as being “above politics”.
The greatest political victory you can win is being able to call your power apolitical.
Likewise: “Le Fue Tue” (chapter heading) – the appeal of the visual rhyme is misleading
Thanks for an article! Now I want more about worst generals across history.
Via Google Maps, a simple satilie view showing the terrain
satilie -> aerial (or satellite, though it seems unlikely to be actually satellite imagery – note how sea is excluded, most imagery used in such views is actually taken by planes – though it is really zoomed out so maybe it is actually satellite view)
BTW, this specific map is not readable at all.
He was only trying to Take 20.
Then he didn’t read the rules carefully enough. You can only Take 20 when there are no consequences for failure.
For Luigi Cadorna, there were no consequences for failure. (Even if there were for his men.)
I like your chutzpah, but there’s no way I’d buy that line of reasoning if I was your DM.
“(conscription for Kitchener’s New Army would only start in July, 1914)”
I believe this must surely be a typo?
Taken all in all, Prof. Devereux’s analysis seems to say that most World War I generals don’t deserve much criticism. The decision to have a war in the first place was hardly up to them. Should they have foreseen that it would devolve into a four year bloody stalemate? The wars of the late nineteenth century had not done so. Their actions in the first two years were in accordance with standard (and mostly correct) doctrine: First, try to outflank the enemy, and when that doesn’t work, prepare a massed offensive on the principle that “artillery conquers, infantry occupies.” Their offensives were launched in reasonable places. They first perfected trench warfare (defense in depth networks, bombproof shelters, staged barrages, etc.) and when their methods didn’t work, they tried new ideas (tanks, infiltration, bite and hold), which admittedly didn’t work that well either, but there were no better ideas.
I want to disagree with you but I think you might have the right of it. The as Bret has said many times, the single biggest mistake of WWI was having a war in the first place. When it comes down to the generals they all have their strengths and weakness, but save for a few obvious outliers they were all professional military men working to their best of their ability to resolve this wholly unique military catastrophe. Some were cruel, some were incompetent, some were far more adept at winning political battles than actual battles. However, they were all similar men, from the same class of society, trained in the same tactics and with the same ideals.
Perhaps blaming the generals is just another way we attempt to overcome the trenches. It is easy to say ‘if only our military leaders had been better all this could have been avoided,’ when the real issues are baked into the politics and societies of the era.
It’s easier to blame generals who’ve been buried for decades than institutions which linger among us still.
I sometimes wonder what those generals we happily dismiss as incompetent would have thought of the actions of British or American arms over the last twenty years or so.
Well. It wasn’t up to them, except for Conrad Von Hotzendorf, who officially insisted that they should be attacking Serbia 25 times over the course of a decade before the War.
Of course, he was prevented on those previous occasions by other sensible advice to the Hapsburg Emperor including that from the heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand…
Wait, who just got shot, again?
“What ought Cadorna have done? ”
Looking at all those mountains my first thought is: “Oh God, No, No, No!”
But my second thought is that such broken terrain might be helpful to those infiltration tactics that everyone is so keen on talking about in WW1. After all, they seem to have worked for the Germans and Austrians.
The point of infiltration, as I understand it, was to soften up enemy defenses so a general advance could be made with fewer losses and better odds of success. It’s pointless in an environment where a successful general advance is impossible.
Also, I’m not sure if the terrain here really helps an infiltrator. On one hand, the defender has poor lines of sight. On the other, the attacker is likely to be exhausted just from walking around, and is almost certainly going to get lost, and will eventually have to make a slow, noisy hike uphill toward a prepared position.
Infiltration techniques worked fantastically on this front, properly executed. For example, Lt Erwin Rommel led a few hundred infiltration troops in the Battle of Caporetto and captured thousands of Italians, as part of a wider infiltration type attack opening up the front to allow a general advance which captured a third of the enemy armed forces.
As noted, the Italians on the Isonzo front would not have been able to achieve the same result because the Austrians had more hills behind them. But better use of advanced tactics would have helped them do bite and hold more efficiently
Yes, but the Austro-Germans were going *downhill*
Except that infiltration units / Sturmtruppen did not exist in 1914. For that matter, troops able to utilise what are effectively modern infantry tactics did not exist.
Modern infantry tactics devolve a lot of decision-making down to platoon, even squad leader level, and modern small-unit leaders are trained accordingly to assess their immediate tactical problem and develop a solution, within an overall company-level framework.
WWI (and earlier) small-unit leaders do not have this training, certainly not formally. They exist to keep everyone pointed in the right direction and moving at the right speed, not to make tactical decisions.
To coin a phrase, a modern NCO is a non-commissioned OFFICER, whereas the pre-modern type is a NON-COMMISSIONED officer.
Incidentally, that’s also why having a 90-day wonder lieutenant is no issue in a pre-modern army.
Infiltration units / Sturmtruppen did not exist in 1915, but they did exist later in the war, so you might expect the Italians to be using them later in the war. Although they probably wouldn’t use a German name for them.
Indeed they existed, they where called Arditi (something like “the courageous”). First experimented with in 1914, they were officially established in 1917 by, strangely enough, Cadorna himself (mind you, he allowed their establishment, but was not the mind behind them).
With all the lists about “Greatest Generals”, I would like to see a serie on “Worst Generals”. You’ve convinced me Cardorna was the worst general of WOI, but what about other periods?
We all know Alexander was the greatest Greek conqueror, but who was the worst of the Hellenistic generals? Was Varus the worst Imperial Roman general?
And was Elphinstone the worst British general, as both someone here and Flashman (the picaresque fictional character) suggested?
Arthur Percival presided over the greatest defeat in British military history at Siingapore – but given the resources available in theatre, would somebody else have done much better? And he seems to have been a pretty decent human being, unlike Cadorna
Percival does absolutely deserve a lot of the blame. He did little to prepare defences in the Malay pensinsula itself. He mismanaged his relations with his two direct subordinates. His troop positioning on the eve of the Japanese crossing of the Johor straits was poor , and he surrendered to the Japanese just as they were at the end of their operational tether. Yamashita (his opponent) admitted that he does not think he could’ve taken Singapore by storm if Percival had not surrendered, given the numerical superiority of the British, including the recent arrival of a fresh division.
Yes, Churchill also deserves the blame for depriving Singapore of needed pre-war reinforcements that put Percival in that position in the first place, but Percival also played the hand he was dealt extremely poorly.
I agree with all that. My point was rather that given the lack of resources, somebody more competent would probably have just lost more slowly. Which may or may not have had wider strategic implications
@AlanL We’re getting a little into counterfactuals here about whether or not the British position in Malaya was doomed from the start, but the Allies had begun to pour resources into the Far East at this point – and while Japanese did have air/naval superiority, I would not say the British defeat in Malaya was inevitable. A better defence on the Malay peninsula or the use of the recently-arrived 18th Division by a more competent general may have turned the situation around.
Can generals really be compared across eras?
I would argue that generally no, they cannot be compared across eras.
There are some rhymes there; I suspect “arrogant idiots who refuse to learn” have correlated outcomes. But you discussed before that “try again, only with more men, bleeding the Italian peninsula dry” worked quite well for the Romans during the Punic wars, right?
Prof. Devereux’s response is in line with his claim that there is no “universal soldier” or universal military experience. I’m not so convinced. We compare political leaders all the time, labeling (say) Elizabeth I as England’s greatest monarch or Abraham Lincoln as America’s greatest president. You may disagree with those particular assessments, but very few people argue that the question is meaningless.
The skill set of a good general across eras and across wars is very likely to be non-transferable.
The basic character defects of a bad general are to some extent transferable and to some extent not.
For instance, personal cowardice isn’t really that big of a disadvantage in a World War era general, because command is done from well behind the lines. But personal cowardice is crippling in ancient warfare, where there was an expectation of commanders leading from the front, or at least being a lot closer to the battle.
On the other hand, some traits, like “cruel to your own soldiers” or “too stupid to know when to quit a military operation that has ceased to serve a purpose,” probably do transfer.
If you understand the logistics of the times, the resulting tactics thereof, and the strategic and political necessities of the times, yes, you can compare the general who effed up facing Napolean with the general who effed up facing the Taliban. You can compare the tactics used by the Afghani resistance to Alexander’s incursion, to the British imperial incursion, to the Soviet incursion, and lastly, the US-led NATO incursion. It would be nice to know something has been learnt, but the only people who’ve been paying any attention appear to have been the PRC.
I think that falls into what Devreaux talked about in the Eternal Soldier Myth: What being a good general *means* is going to vary across time and space and depending on circumstances. Things like personal bravery and being willing to get stuck in the fight are basically net negatives for a WWI general, but might be absolutely crucial in an early-medieval battlefield where being able to be seen and being able to inspire your men is absolutely crucial, for instance. Even what organizing logistics means could vary extensively between periods and depending on how the army you are fighting with works.
People who’ve been paying attention would know what the correct word is for the denizens of Afghanistan. (It isn’t “afghani”. That’s the currency.)
Well with large error bars,you I think you can compare how well they handled common concerns like logistics, moral, understanding of terrain, etc. If we can compare historical political leaders from the different eras, I think we can compare military leaders as well.
Not really, because modern armies institutionalise things – a modern combat formation has a logistics establishment that is very much lacking in, say, 18th century formations, which organised their logistics ad hoc.
There is also the issue of spheres. Irrespective of Rommel’s or Eisenhower’s ability as commanders, neither made decisions committing their realm to war, as Napoleon, Frederick II of Prussia or Richard Plantagenet very much did.
In the abstract, if you try hard enough and accept huge margins of error, probably. It shouldn’t be hard to argue that, for instance, Alexander the Acceptable is a better general than Luigi Cadorna. But if the answer isn’t obvious, it’s gonna be subjective.
Elphinstone was certainly the worse Martial translator…
No wait, that’s a different Elphinstone: (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Elphinston)
I second this! We could even tie it into some of the pop-culture side of the blog and have a series on worst generals in fiction as well. My vote goes to Fleshharrower!
Abaddon the Despoiler definitely takes the crown. He is the 40K equivalent of Cadorno, leading THIRTEEN campaigns against the planet of Cadia (granted, he did blow it up on the last one!)
On the upside, play Battlefleet Gothic: Armada II and you get to rumble with him in space as THE IMPERIAL NAVY. Really good game and not too expensive these days since its a couple of years old.
Granted, Fleshharrower only had one recorded campaign, but it’s telling that his boss didn’t even bother to tell him the overall strategy because he was sure Fleshharrower was too stupid to understand it. And then managing to lose to an army he outnumbers 20:1 and has enormously more magical power than by walking into an obvious trap because he’s just so keen on closing grips with someone, anyone in front of him is way worse than anything I can recall Abbadon doing. Plus, some of the smaller engagements of the campaign involve him taking enormous amounts of time to bring down tiny forces that mostly run around in circles to delay him (because again, Fleshharrower does not know how to do anything other than chase anyone in front of him with basically his entire, way too big for actual purpose army).
They did somewhat retcon that as him using the attacks on Cadia as distractions to get other shit done. (taking Drach’nyen, acquiring the Blackstone Fortresses, etc)
Poor Varus’ main failure was trusting the same guy he had more or less trusted for a decade, leave him alone.
:'(. And a bunch as minor spotting and scouting failures but that isn’t as dramatic.
It would be interesting to hear Bret Devereaux’s (Or indeed most any historian’s) opinion of that sort of thing.
There is a problem though. If you want to write a rigorous, research paper or historical book grade argument that someone is the worst (Or even the best) general you have to deal with the fact that there are lots of people who may deserve the title, and not a lot of information about them.
Military History Visualized gives this argument here for the question “Who was the best German general in World War Two-> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6PtPEYOGJw
Basically there were over 3000 people who were generals or admirals in Nazi Germany, Even with some whittling down you get to about under 900 people. If information about those people existed it would take a third of a year to read. But information about many German generals just doesn’t exist. This would be worse when talking about anyone from antiquity where records are really sparse compared to 1940’s Germany (From a people bothering to write anything down standpoint and a people keeping track of the records standpoint).
I think that Bret has proven that Cardorna is obviously a superlatively bad general. But it’s possible that there was someone worse who was rendered KIA due to a bad decision they made, or they failed politically and were unceremoniously sacked, or their army saw through their BS and kept them away from important work.
The best German general in WWII was Eisenhower.
One way out of this definitional problem is to look for the worst relative to the responsibility afforded them. There’s a lot more leeway for some nameless, KIA brigadier to be incompetent than for the overall commander of the Italian Army.
Yes, you would only include those generals that directed armies, and were somewhat well-known.
Worst Hellenistic general is tricky, because my understanding is that the consequences for failure in the period after Alexander’s death were extreme. You lost a battle against the Parthians? Either you were killed, or taken captive, or (if a ruler) a rival back home used the opportunity to claim the throne while you were out, or (if a general) you were executed anyway as a possible rival. As such, it’s difficult to rack up too many repeated defeats.
There are a lot of bad generals in history. You’d need to narrow it down before Dereveaux could give a decent list. Maybe “worst Roman generals”?
I wonder if he would have had more success after Caporetto, with the more favorable terrain to launch attacks from and being closer to his supply lines?
Or would he have found a different way to botch things?
Absolutely not, he would almost certainly have botched things again.
His immediate successor was Diaz, who almost immediately stabilised the situation and laid the groundwork for a successful counter-offensive a year later. Key things he did were
A) work hard to rebuild his men’s morale by nicer methods than firing squads
B) Show tactical flexibility and a willingness to devolve command in complex geography
C) focus on intelligent defence until weight had been built up for a real counterattack
D) Liaise well with his Allies
Cadorna was absolutely terrible at all those things, with only C) being even plausible as something he would have done. The measure of D is that the Allies insisted on his immediate dismissal before considering real aid,
Had he been kept on, he would most likely have lost the battle of Monte Grappa which Diaz won. His command style was stiil unsuited for the terrain and the morale of his men would have remained appalling. That loss, combined with the lack of Allied help would then likely have cost Italy the whole Veneto,possibly knocking them out of the war.
You’re asking if the man who fought the same disastrous battle 11 times, and blamed someone else every time despite having sole authority and command in his army, would have learned from a bad experience?
The only question is would he have ordered Foch arrested and executed for sending him (what Cadorna would undoubtedly term, after they failed to give him what he wanted) “inferior” troops!
So the portrait I’ve been painted of Cadorna is that this guy should have had a 40K Comissar named after him, for his good work in establishing their playbook.
…I also find it amusing it’s agreed that the good name Luigi does not deserve to be lumped in with this particular general.
I CAN kind of get where he’s going with the eleven attacks though- small army + underequipped for the time= don’t get in a big slugging match with the other powers. Knife-fighting fits my understanding of the adjectives used to describe him to boot.
…In terms of politics a part of me distinctly wonders if that’s part of why Cadorna tried to pull Rome-style endless leigon tactics- he spent too much time splitting his attention between politics and military endeavors, enough to effectively give him amnesia about why attacking this one spot was a bad idea, as well as explaining that political invulnerability he had despite his losses…Though that makes me think he was a politician first, general second- He was always ready to blame his TROOPS for THEIR losses, and thus prevent the stench of failure from clinging to him…But all that time doing politics meant he didn’t really have the time to think about Operations or Strategy updates, and the Tactical gains…Seem to me to have been rooted in what Officers and Infantry avoided getting fired and removed from decision making-a.k.a people not named Cadorna, he’s too busy campaigning for Pres- I mean, General again.
About world war 1 in general, it’s retrospectively surprising that the leaders of every country would be willing to send millions to their death in pointless attacks given the emphasis on eugenics and all the concern about the quality of bloods before world war 1. After all mass war like that is all about sending you most healthy and dynamic young men to die. It’s the complete opposite of eugenics. Same for the material aspect of the war, the amount of ressources thrown in it is incredible. Why was nobody willing to negotiate anything after it was clear no easy or quick victory could be achieved? What do they think they could win that was worth the cost in men and material? Kitchener didn’t have victoria II to play and figure it out I guess.
On a related note, it’s amazing how much the far right militaristic bad ass loving crew manage to start wars with very low chance of winning and get wiped out every time they get power in the modern age. I think it’s due to them confusing the capacity to punch someone or beeing able to endure difficult situations in general and the capacity to wage war. One of the worst example is the american civil war. The south could just have demanded compensation for the end of slavery and hire their former slaves as employees like the british and the french did. That would have been much better than killing hundreds of thousands of peoples with massive material cost to lose your slaves anyway.
Sorry for the drift out of the subject your blog made me think a lot about history recently.
Plenty of far right leaders have been smart enough not to start wars they can’t win: Bismarck, Franco and Pinochet all come to mind.
Bismarck might not have “started” WWI (being dead at the time) but he built a LOT of the preconditions.
By the same line of thinking, the 40 years of peace between 1871 and 1914 were built on his preconditions.
Franco was quite keen to join Germany against the USSR. He just laid down his conditions (guaranteed delivery of a lot of oil, food and munitions, plus a slice of French North Africa), and backed away when Hitler offered vague promises instead.
That sounds like Franco finding a polite way of saying no to the genocidal dictator with an army on his northern border.
That is exactly what was going on. Franco was barely even a fascist, much less a Nazi, and he knew good and well that after the Civil War and his purges of suspected leftist elements, Spain was not ready to get into another tussle. He also wasn’t sure that Germany would win.
However, he also knew he couldn’t tell Hitler no outright, both for the reasons you mentioned and because he had plenty of extremist elements who thought that joining the “Crusade against Bolshevism” was a splendid idea and would have been very displeased if they were denied the opportunity.
So Franco laid down some thoroughly over-the-top conditions for joining the war outright, they were rejected as he expected, and then he proceeded to rid himself of a lot of the more radical rightists and war dogs by allowing and encouraging volunteers to fight the Soviets in what came to be called the Blue Division
The genocidal dictator whose military aid, along with Mussolini’s, had been instrumental for Franco’s victory in the civil war, which probably would have dragged well into 1939 or 1940 otherwise. So he gave the Axis very little in exchange for their support, other than tungsten and a rather effective, but small “volunteer” force.
However, Spain was definitely in no shape to fight a war — the country underwent famine conditions in the early 1940s, without even being a belligerent. So perhaps Franco ultimately did a favor to the Axis a favor by staying out? If he declared war on the Allies, Spain would have become low-hanging fruit for an Allied amphibious invasion force…
“The best option was not to wave WWI”
The consensus of the historical things I’ve read about it seems to be “WWI was inevitable” both in real life and the computer games we’re taking a tangent from. In the representatively governed countries the idea of war was massively popular in 1914, and even in the authoritatively governed ones the authorities were in favor.
It depends what you mean by “inevitable,” really. Something can be politically inevitable, like someone from one of the two major parties winning a US Presidential election, without being physically inevitable, like a dropped object falling to the ground. With the benefit of hindsight, it was entirely possible for most of the participants in WWI to say “no thanks, we’re not doing that.” The fact that several hundred million people simultaneously failed to make that choice doesn’t mean that the choice didn’t exist or that it wouldn’t have been wise.
The historical consensus is that the war was essentially decided upon in Vienna, Berlin and St Petersburg. In all cases by small groups of men caught between unwelcome domestic trends and equally unwelcome foreign trends. Psychologically, it was a ‘flucht nack vorn’ – a leap out of intolerable pressures, with all calculation done in the shared conviction that the alternatives were worse. In the context of the OP, this makes Italy’s entry look worse – it could have stayed out (and Cadorna could have advised the government against entry).
Not an unfamiliar process – repeated earlier by the Confederacy and later by Berlin (again) and Tokyo.
I’m not sure how much Cadorna could have done to keep Italy out of the war. When the crisis began in 1914, he wasn’t even in charge. Instead General Pollo was in charge, but he died in the midst of the crisis, I think on July 1st. Pollo seems to have been a much better general (actually thought outside of the box), but he was probably the Triple Alliances’ number 1 fan! And I can’t imagine Italy going to war against Austria and Germany with him still in charge.
More important was an upset in the Italian parliament. Former Prime Minister Giolitti’s coalition had lost an election in early 1914. He viewed it as a temporary setback, and after reorganizing his party he would come to power again. Giolitti was opposed to joining the war, feeling that Italy could get what it wants by staying neutral (he may also have learned a lesson about how wars can drag on with the Italo-Turkish War). But the Salandra government was pro-war. Theoretically, the king could have overridden parliament, but Vittorio Emmanuelle III, considered by most to be a weak king, probably had republican leanings, and allowed the parliament to conduct foreign affairs.
Several “outs” that Italy could have taken, if history had gone just a little bit differently.
I think most arguments is that some kind of war was inevitable, but that it would become World War I was not. (but was fairly likely) there had been near-misses before after all, and nothing really suggested that this would be the one that actually started the thing.
Like I think there are a bunch of different points where things could have turned out different: There is a “No War”, POD, there is a “small war in the balkans” POD and even a “Limited Great Power War” POD, and the (though possibly least likely) “Peace in 1915” possibility. Now, any of these might have lead to a further war at some other point… or it might not have.
That’s not to say that it was just stupidity, etc. there were reasons for the war starting in 1914, but I don’t think the war was at any point inevitable, or at least, *World War I* was not inevitable in the shape it took.
It’s been a while since I read it and I don’t know what the scholarly consensus is on the matter, but I seem to recall Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers made the case that there was indeed a narrow window for the “small war in the Balkans” scenario: if Austria had declared war on Serbia right away, international outrage at the assassination of the Archduke may have prevented Russia from defending their ally and maybe allowed for a solution other than the utter annihilation of Serbia. Instead, Austria squandered that advantage by trying to put Serbia in a diplomatic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”: a thorough investigation of the murder would have exposed the Serbian state’s connections to the Bosnian irredentists, whereas an obstruction of the investigation would have meant an implicit acknowledgement of such connections and thus provided Austria with a casus belli, which is what happened in the end, but by then the outrage had already faded. Then the hotheads in Berlin unilaterally escalated the conflict by rushing to declare war on Russia…
I discovered your blog a few months ago and have been getting caught up on your articles. I am enjoying them very much, and I wanted to thank you for providing all these great articles. (I haven’t studied much of ancient/classical history since college, and have especially enjoyed those articles on Rome and Sparta).
The history of Italy in WW1 is dear to me and I wanted to provide a quick clarification:
The Alpini were prewar, elite mountain infantry forces. The “Arditi” were special assault troops developed during the war. Arditi are a bit hard to pin down; some sources refer to them as the world’s first modern special forces. But I think of them as kind of being in between special forces and elite infantry. Their structure was fundamentally different from normal infantry, and it took a while for commanders to understand how to properly use them.
Another area that Italy pioneered was the use of aircraft, especially bombing (the first bomb dropped from airplane was by an Italian during the Italo-Turkish War in 1911). There were some battles where the Italian use of bombers did have a significant impact.
At the very least, we could say that Cadorna did not stand in the way of such developments. 😉
I’m working on a longer (probably too long), “defense of Cadorna” . . . I really hate saying that, because I do believe he was a bad general. But that from the tactical and strategic viewpoint, that he wasn’t that much worse than most other, more typical, “bad” generals of the war.
The big accusations you would have to respond to in a “defense of Cadorna” would be:
1) His cruelty towards his own men.
2) His refusal to accept responsibility for his own repeated mistakes.
3) His refusal to significantly alter his plans in response to repeated failure.
“As I’ve noted before, the worst decision in the First World War was having a First World War, though the responsibility for that is diffused across multiple different leading figures.”
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on what could and should have been done to prevent the war.
Yes, I would be interested in this too. I would also be interested in a post looking at the tensions between America and China lately.
There are two answers, or at least two extremes the answers tend towards.
On the easy end: “Don’t declare war!”
On the hard end: Figure out what would have to happen for everyone to realize that going to war was as bad as it turned out to be before they start fighting, and a compromise that would be more appealing to everyone involved than putting an entire generation of young men through the blender of trench warfare.
I’m not used to responding in such a medium. Despite my attempts to pare it down, it’s much too long, so I’m going to break my response into several posts.
I find studying Italian military history to be somewhat difficult. Most historians seem to have a very poor view of Italian military prowess, from at least the end of the Roman Empire (perhaps even a little before the fall of the Empire), and that results in a lot of bias. Others have addressed this issue in detail, so I’m not going to dwell on it, but I will point out that the biases can be hard to avoid. There seems to be a particularly bad problem with Italy in WW1. In my attempts to overturn these biases I may take it too far in the other direction, but perhaps that will help give a balancing perspective.
A quick note about sources. I haven’t really reviewed mine in a while, so I might get some details wrong. I recommend Thompson’s “The White War” — I strongly recommend avoiding Schindler’s “Isonzo” (mostly, frustratingly biased). This ancient website is still around:
The articles provide a decent introduction to the Italian Front, especially the one on the 11 battles of the Isonzo.
Before diving into it, I want to emphasize, I do think Cadorna was a bad general. His use of decimations against men accused of cowardice, and the “torpedoing” of officers that disagreed with him, alone would rank him as a bad general. Otherwise, I do believe that he was bad general strategically/tactically speaking, but that he wasn’t that much worse than a “typical” bad general of WW1.
Part 2. Casualties —
Casualties are a bit tricky. Schindler, in his Isonzo (which I think is terribly biased and do not recommend), argues that both the Italians and Austrians underreported their casualties — which seems reasonable to me — but his estimates always add far more casualties to the Italian side than the Austro-Hungarian. He further provides no explanation as to how he came to those estimates (and there are various biases that could influence them), so, until convinced otherwise, I don’t trust them.
Instead, I prefer to fall back on the official numbers, admitting that both sides were prone to underreporting, and hoping, that combined with the other various discrepancies in reporting, it effectively comes out in a wash, leaving us with a rough idea as to the “proportion” of casualties during a battle. (Note: I don’t know which numbers you were using, I do know I often see Schindler’s numbers repeated elsewhere).
What do those casualty numbers show? They mostly agree with your conclusion that the Italians seem to get the worst of it, although the effect is perhaps not as strong, it is definitely noticeable. Which, compared to other fronts in the war, would seem to indicate that Cadorna’s tactical/strategic thinking was deficient. But . . .
3. Terrain —
The Isonzo was bad terrain. In addition to the mountains, you had the Carso and Bainsizza plateaus, which are perfect examples of Karst geography (Karst is the German word for “Carso”). Which was also particularly ugly and confusing terrain to fight over. I’ve actually been on some of the mountains of the Isonzo, slipping on the rocks wearing reproduction WW1 boots, and I can say that it’s hard to appreciate how severe the terrain is without actually being there. Of course, my Italian guides would say “wait until you see the Dolomites!”
As bad as the Isonzo was, there wasn’t really any other feasible option on the Italian front for major offensives. Yes, the Austro-Hungarians did launch the Asiago offensive, but its failure was in part due to the lack of supply routes to follow up on the success (and not the Brusilov Offensive). It’s telling that when the Germans decided to help out, they also chose the Isonzo front; the Battle of Caporetto is also known as the “12th” Battle of the Isonzo.
Cadorna was very stubborn about his focus on the Isonzo, but I’m not so optimistic about other fronts. The Italians did open up a front in Albania (and were almost immediately bottled up there), which they eventually managed to connect to the Macedonia Front. They had troops on that front too. The Regia Marina pushed for an amphibious assault on Trieste, but, generally speaking, large scale amphibious operations do not have a good reputation during WW1 (e.g. Gallipoli). Although the Italians had become quite adept at such operations during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12, I’m not sure the conditions would have been sufficiently similar.
However, was Cadorna that much out of step with those generals who felt that all those other fronts were side-shows, and merely took resources away from the Western Front? The main difference might be those other generals’ governments were more willing to override their objections.
So, if I understand correctly, your point here is that Cadorna “had no choice,” so to speak, except to fight aggressively on the Isonzo Front? Even if there was no realistic chance of making gains or achieving a favorable rate of attrition, the war had to be fought with major offensives there?
What, precisely, would have prevented Cadorna from simply deciding:
“The only possible front on which to fight the Austro-Hungarians has terrible terrain and there are no targets worth expending tens of thousands of lives to capture, so I will simply not attack, or attack only under limited conditions (such as the sapping attack you mention elsewhere, or trench raids at night)?”
Historically, most other nations’ commanders chose to attack places where there was some recognizable military objective that the attack could hope to accomplish, beyond just “have a battle.”
Cadorna shows every sign of having been motivated purely by the desire to have battles, regardless of whether those battles could ever hope to accomplish anything before his army shattered and the Central Powers overran the front (as eventually happened).
Which means that attempting to excuse his conduct by saying “but he had no front to fight on besides the Isonzo” doesn’t get you very far. He could have chosen to make the Isonzo the focus of his activities without ordering so many reckless attacks.
This is where Dr. Devereaux’s comments about him making the wrong choice of operational tempo apply. More on that below.
If you look at the Italian Front in isolation, the argument to “not attack”, just sit tight and let the Austrians attack you makes sense. But Italy had joined the Allies, and the Allies had certain expectations of what Italy was to do . . .
Putting pressure on the Austro-Hungarian forces was a political necessity. Italy couldn’t sit back and do nothing, and expect the Allies to follow through with their promises after the war. (In fact, even after Italy sacrificed a lot, the Allies still short-shrifted her after the war).
As Dr. Deveraux’s comments had mentioned, the best option for WW1, is not to fight WW1 — Italy had that option, and some Italian politicians at the time said as much.
But, with Italy in the war, what were her options? Perhaps an adaptation of Pollo’s plan would have been better, but I’m not sure that could have been pulled off from a logistical point of view, if not from a political point view. In short, Pollo (Cadorna’s immediate predecessor, and number one fan of the Triple Alliance), had suggested putting enough troops on the French border to tie down the French forces there, and then railing 4-6 Army Corps to Germany to support operations in France. When he proposed these ideas to his counterparts in the Triple Alliance they were stunned, but didn’t take them up. While he had consulted railway timetables, he failed to account for the fact that those railways would be overloaded mobilizing the forces for the home troops. Furthermore, I don’t think the French would have wanted an entire Italian army operating on their front — a lot of Allied strategic thinking was about how to open up *new* fronts.
Despite the fact that other Allied high commanders had visited the Italian Front, I know of none that had suggested the Italians “cool it” and lay off the attacks (is this incorrect?), in fact they always seem to pressuring Italy to launch attacks on their front.
Remember, the argument is that Cadorna is worse than all these other generals – and I do think he was a bad general (and likely worse than those other generals), but, that in this regard, he seems to be more in line with the general mode of thinking.
“Putting pressure on the Austro-Hungarian forces was a political necessity. Italy couldn’t sit back and do nothing, and expect the Allies to follow through with their promises after the war.”
Was it necessary to put pressure on the enemy *there*? Why not send Italian soldiers to France to fight alongside the French?
That had been, effectively, Cadorna’s predecessor’s plan. General Pollio (I think I’ve been misspelling his name), who died during the political crisis of 1914, just as the war was breaking out, drew up just such plans.
The difference was that Pollio was assuming Italy would remain allied to Germany and Austria. As bad as Italy’s border with Austria was in 1915, the border with France was considered to be even worse. His pre-war planning called for leaving a large enough force on the French/Italian border to tie-down French forces there (and protect Italy — this is important because the borders were better for invading Italy than they were for Italy to invade others), then sending the rest of the troops to Germany to support operations against France.
One problem with this plan was logistical — the railways he intended to use would have been clogged with mobilizing the host countries’ forces. There would also be the necessity of resupplying such a force (they used different weapons, different ammunition, etc.). So the logistical burden would have been greater. It probably wasn’t insurmountable, but would have certainly hampered operations at least initially (in 1914, the British ran into problems with roads that were promised for their use being clogged with French troops).
I would further note, that when Pollio suggested that the members of the Triple Alliance jointly develop contingency plans to coordinate their actions, they didn’t act on it. The assumption appears to have been that they would fight their own battles on their own frontiers, and not directly support each other on a significant scale. The realities of the war meant that, eventually, allies would have to support each other, but initially, they seem to have avoided doing so (with the exception of Britain, which had no borders with Germany).
I do feel that it shows that Pollio anticipated the problems that Italy would face in such a war, and he had creative solutions, even if we don’t know how well they would have worked. In 1918, the Italians would send an army corps to the Western Front, but no where near the scale that had been imagined by Pollio. Perhaps a better option would have been to send more Italian troops to the Macedonian front — but that was a fairly difficult front too. And I wonder how much logistics could have slowed an increase in scale of operations there. (One of the things that I can find very little information about, is the scale of Italian operations in Albania, which supported the Allied operations in Macedonia).
What I want to emphasize, however, is while I certainly don’t see Cadorna making any suggestions about applying more Italian troops to other fronts, I also don’t see the Allied high command suggesting it either. Instead, they seem to think Italy could, and should, be putting pressure on Austria-Hungary along its own borders (i.e. the Isonzo front). Or, perhaps, more precisely, I don’t see the Allies suggesting that Italy should have provided more support to other fronts, *instead* of fighting on the Isonzo.
I expect this is a sore point with Italians so I don’t wish to cause any offence, but it’s interesting to hear the assertion that reparations from the war should be equal to the sacrifice made, rather than say, the achievements made towards winning said war.
Let’s say you hire three people to dig a trench. Two people exhaust themselves digging holes in the right place, and that join up with each other, in the end forming a trench where you want it. The third person exhausts themselves digging a hole in the wrong location, meaning that one of your other two people has to stop digging and go fill it back up again.
I’d be inclined to pay the third person less for their day’s work!
I suspect that this was something like the attitude in the treaties that followed WW1.
Ah, there’s a couple historical facts that need to be understood:
1. The Treaty of London of 1915, made certain promises to Italy for joining the war. There weren’t really any conditions, other than to declare war on Austria and Germany. In addition to the Trentino and Trieste (which Italy did receive), parts of Dalmatia and a third of all German colonies captured were also supposed to go to Italy (which did not happen).
2. It was the Allies who claimed that Italy didn’t really give that much to the war, and, therefore, the Allies didn’t have to honor all the conditions of the Treaty. If I remember correctly, shortly after the war, the British War Office estimated Italian casualties (killed) as 250,000, whereas most estimates give around 650,000.
WW1 was a war of attrition. The Allies didn’t conquer Germany or even penetrate its borders. So “expenditure” was one of the few metrics at hand to try to estimate how much a nation had contributed to the war. (Perhaps a better measure would have been to try to estimate how much damage each side inflicted upon the enemy, but that would have been very difficult to calculate in the immediate aftermath of the war).
As a result there was a propaganda campaign to make it look like Italy didn’t really fight that hard. It had a couple of different facets. One was to reduce the “sacrifices” Italy made to the war, and another was to reduce any effective gains that Italy contributed to the war. The latter, certainly falls into an old bias which diminishes Italian military prowess — and I feel is still a problem when studying Italian military history. (There’s actually a book written by an American officer who served on the Italian front, precisely because what was being written about Italy’s participation in the war ran counter to his experiences there).
To modify your analogy of diggers a little: imagine that the two other diggers coordinated their efforts with the third — neither of them suggested the third dig in a different place, encouraged him to continue digging in that place (even when the ground was frozen solid) and then when the work was done, those two said the third digger wasn’t really that tired. The Allies didn’t complain they were “digging” in the wrong location, just that they didn’t “do enough.”
It’s not like the Allies were “unaware” of what Italy was doing during the war! Any attempt to adopt a defense posture on the Italian Front, and shift troops to other fronts, would have required inter-allied coordination. I don’t know of any serious attempts at doing so. Am I wrong? Were there other high commanders who pushed for such a strategy? (I honestly want to know). From the histories I have read, the Allies expected Italy to put pressure on the Austrians on their own border.
I do fault Cadorna for not considering other fronts, but I’m not so sure there were realistic options. Furthermore, I can’t see that other Allied generals thought differently. (Remember the argument is this is one reason why he was the “worst” general of the war, and not just a bad general).
My general feeling is that the 11 battles of the Isonzo are the result of the same mentality that resulted in the 5 month long Battle of the Somme, or 10 month long battle of Verdun — keep trying the same thing hoping eventually it will work. The 11 battles of the Isonzo take on a different character because the conditions were different on the Italian Front, but stem from the same mindset.
From that perspective Cadorna doesn’t strike me as exceptionally bad when compared to his peers. Note, I’m not saying he was a good commander in that sense either, just that he seems to have been in good company when it came to stubbornly trying the same thing over and over again. Instead, there are other aspects of his leadership (or should I say “leadership”), that I think would easily lower him to the worst general of the war.
When it comes to Italy it’s almost like historians forget they’re talking about WW1, and they seem to view aspects (mentalities) in isolation and as being exceptional, when, they appear to me, to have clear analogues on other fronts. As a result, I think the argument that Cadorna is the worst general of the war, would have been better if it had focused on other aspects (like random executions of his own men, and the “torpedoing” of his officers that disagreed with his methods), than on his poor battlefield performance. Which, while admittedly bad, doesn’t seem to have been that far out of line with other bad generalship of the war.
4. A contradiction?
If the terrain on the Isonzo front was particularly bad for an assault (using the conventional means that Cadorna’s contemporaries mostly used), then would that not explain the greater casualties that the Italian army suffered on the offensive? At least partially?
But if the greater number of casualties was due to, exceptionally bad, tactical and strategic thinking, then wouldn’t that mean that the terrain was not a particular barrier to effective assaults?
I suppose that you could argue that by choosing to fight on such unfavorable terrain (when there were other realistic options), shows a failure of strategic thinking. But it still pegs the higher casualties to the terrain, and not to particularly bad handling of those battles.
Do we have other points of comparison? Was there similar terrain that other powers fought over, that would provide us with enough data points to compare to the Isonzo front? (I don’t think so, because I think given the option, they generally avoided such terrain).
If I understand your words here correctly, the obvious conclusion of them is “Cadorna may or may not have been especially bad at handling his soldiers, but it doesn’t matter because no general could have handled soldiers well enough to be successful on that terrain.”
On the other hand, Cadorna isn’t really being accused of being uniquely bad at handling soldiers in the details of exactly which elevations he commanded them to capture, or how he directed his artillery in detail, or anything else where we might compare World War One generals.
He’s being accused of being uniquely bad at recognizing that the entire decision to launch repeated offensives into the Isonzo was a mistake.
If a man loses twelve battles in a row, he is very clearly doing something wrong- either he’s incompetent at handling his men in the battle, he’s incompetent at picking battles his men have a hope of winning, or both.
No, that’s not what I intended to convey. Two, separate (as I interpreted them), arguments were presented of evidence of Cadorna being the worst general:
1. He chose to fight on particularly disadvantageous terrain. (Which even Dr. Devereaux, begrudgingly admits he *may* have had to do so for political reasons).
2. He failed to achieve, usually, a favorable balance of casualties, *compared to other fronts,* which is an indication of poor generalship.
Perhaps those two points aren’t contradictory — but they at least mitigate against each other. However, I also pointed out, this is hard to judge — casualty estimates vary wildly for many WW1 battles, but I haven’t even seen any good discussion on this when it comes to the Italian front. If historians are going to use casualty estimates to arrive at certain conclusions about combat effectiveness there should, at least, be some argument for why those particular estimates should be accepted. Also, I’m not aware of battles being fought by other powers on similar terrain during the war (I’m open to hearing about such battles). So our points of comparison are limited.
“If a man loses twelve battles in a row, he is very clearly doing something wrong”
Why do you say he lost 12 battles in a row? I mean, one could argue, with the same amount of bombast, that he only *lost* one of those battles (Caporetto), the rest were draws or victories. (To be fair, he turned back the Asiago offensive, the 6th Isonzo, despite a missed opportunity, surpassed its, limited, operational goals, and the 11th is considered by many historians to be a “technical victory”).
Look, I think Cadorna was a bad general, and maybe he was the worst general of the war. But I also think a lot of people tend to not take a critical look at the various claims about Italy during WW1. The fact that you’re comfortable calling the 12 battles of the Isonzo all losses for the Italian army, is . . . well, a depressing reality of the state of research into this subject.
5. Counting Battles —
The 11 battles of the Isonzo certainly look bad on paper compared to the 4 major offensives by the French in the same time period. Is simply counting up battles an appropriate comparison? The Italians lacked the resources for long, sustained offensives, and the offensives often petered out when they ran out of shells.
To provide a different perspective, I counted the days of the battles, with the caveat that sometimes different sides disagree on dates (usually the end), and how some battles (like Verdun, which I did not include) could spin out of control. The 11 battles of the Isonzo account for 148 days of offensive action (or 159 if you count inclusively). The four French offensives that you listed in the same period account for 245(!) days of offensive action, with the Somme accounting for 140 days alone! The longest of the Isonzo battles lasted about 27 days, whereas the shortest of the French offensives was 24 days (and that was the Nivelle offensive, which caused a mutiny). The shortest of the Isonzo battles were only a couple of days (the 7th, 8th, and 9th battles were all just a few days).
So from that perspective, the duration of the 11 battles of the Isonzo, were roughly the equivalent of the (single) battle of the Somme. Don’t get me wrong, if the Italian army could had sustained an offensive as long as the Somme or Verdun, Cadorna would have ordered it to do so. (But if the Italian army could have sustained such a battle it would have certainly exhausted the Austro-Hungarians long before.)
Also, some of the Isonzo battles were very short (roughly three days), and were called off because they went so bad from the beginning. So maybe Cadorna did have some sense of how to preserve his resources? Even if he didn’t apply it very well in all cases?
6. Tempo and did Cadorna fail to learn?
“Alternately Cadorna might have, accepting that the Isonzo was, for political reasons, where he must fight, adopted a slower operational tempo with carefully planned attacks allowing for sufficient time to build up artillery, shells and equipment and so perhaps achieve favorable or at least neutral casualty exchanges “
You argue that he didn’t learn this lesson . . . but he seems to have been learning by 1917. There were only two battles of the Isonzo in 1917, and that decrease in tempo, allowed a significant build up of men and artillery shells. Those two battles were the largest, most intense, and came very close to breaking the Austro-Hungarian army. That he could have saved up more is true (sort of), but what general in 1917 had figured out how much to “save up”? Furthermore, these actions were coordinated with the rest of the grand Allied strategy — the 10th battle of the Isonzo, was to coincide with the Nivelle offensive.
Likewise, throughout the war, the Allies were demanding that the Italians launch full scale assaults almost all the time. They seem to have begun with almost no understanding of the difficulties of the terrain and Italian lack of resources, and ended with an only slightly improved understanding of those difficulties. At least, as the war went on, there were attempts to coordinate offensives, but even then the weather would often prevent operations on the Italian front from kicking off when they were supposed to. So the tempo wasn’t *entirely* under Cadorna’s control (although perhaps that was a good thing in some cases).
7. Conclusion —
Operationally, were the Eleven battles of the Isonzo a result of particularly bad generalship, or were they an application of the same “bad” generalship that typified WW1 commanders, but constrained by the limited resources of the Italian army and the terrain of the Italian Front? (Note: use of “bad” in quotes).
I tend to lean toward the latter. Admitting that Cadorna could have thought more out of the box (at least tried to put more pressure on other fronts that Italians were already present on) — and acknowledging the other terrible aspects of his leadership — operationally, I don’t feel that Cadorna was exceptionally bad. I do feel he was a bad general, but not that far out of line when compared to his contemporaries. Is the combination of “typical” lousy generalship (operationally), combined with the terrible practices of decimations and torpedoing enough to make him the worst general? Maybe it is.
I think that Cadorna’s record speaks for itself. He generalled a dozen battles (I believe his pre-war career saw limited active warfare), of which the first 11 led to a cumulative gain of a few hundred square km of mountain, and set him up for his final battle which saw him lose everything he had, gained, a third of his army, and nearly his country. The fact that General Diaz was able to manage much better almost immediately tells its own story. There is no need to seek comparisons to foreign generals
If you’re going to call someone the “worst” of something . . . aren’t comparisons necessary? The claim is he’s the worst general of WW1. Not the “worst Italian high commander of WW1” — which claim I think it would be very hard to find anyone who disagreed with. 😉
The 11th Battle of the Isonzo came very, very close to breaking the Austro-Hungarian army. This was sensed by the entire Italian army, and the officers noticed the men were putting much more into this battle, feeling this was going to be the final battle. The failure of this battle absolutely had devastating consequences for the Italian army, but it was close. Boroevic had been skillfully trading land for time (and only giving up that land very begrudgingly) – but he had now run out of land. They were defending the last line of mountains before things opened up to Trieste (despite its dubious strategic value, both sides clearly saw Trieste as an important symbol, maybe like Verdun?). He was forced to call on the Germans for help.
Cadorna absolutely bears the responsibility for these battles. Not only did these battles sap the morale of his soldiers, his terrible treatment of his soldiers further depressed morale. He sensed that there was going to be a counter attack, but failed to take proper precautions. In fairness, the Western Allies hadn’t come up with a counter to the Infiltration Tactics that would be unleashed at Caporetto, but he hadn’t even seemed to have learned the lessons from the Asiago offensive of the previous year. (Or, perhaps he had learned the wrong lesson)
I wonder if part of Cadorna’s perceived incompetence vis-a-vis other generals of WW1, is that he retained high command for much longer. Other generals would have been replaced, often by generals who didn’t do any better than they had done. But Cadorna stuck on until Caporetto finally forced him out.
Armando Diaz was, hands down, a superior general to Cadorna. I’m not questioning that at all. The conditions that he became general under were much different, and, for a while, he at least had the support of the Allies in reorganizing and rebuilding the army (they would eventually be clamoring for him to attack soon enough). Nevertheless, he resisted the pressure to launch attacks and carefully built up his forces. While I think it is unfair to say Cadorna had not learned that lesson at all — the build up for the 10th and 11th battles of the Isonzo, shows he was learning something — it’s clear that Diaz had more completely appreciated it.
One other thing about how bad Cadorna was (and again, I do think he was a bad general, I just don’t think *all* comparisons are fair): his decimations of soldiers and his “torpedoing” of officers had a corruptive effect on the entire military. Under his command those practices had become systemic — he had corrupted the officer corps with his way of thinking. So even after Diaz abolished those practices formally, they would still be a problem that would require effort to expunge (and I don’t know if they were completely eliminated from the army).
I actually agree with pretty much all of this. ‘Worst’ is not something I’m qualified to assess, but we agree that Cadorna was a very bad general, especially in respect of the morale of his men. With respect to the 11th Isonzo, you are right, but on a strategic level I would suggest that the Austrian army that was pushed to the edge was only one of the Central Powers’ armies, and reinforcements were clearly necessary and available, so Cadorna would probably not have won his 12th push either. And each push drove his army closer to the edge of despair.
Your point about Cadorna’s longevity seems very relevant. Also with respect to Marshal Badoglio’s career, would you know why the Italian political class 1910-50 was so very tolerant of military failure? I find it strange.
The Italians also had allies they could call on, and they would do so after Caporetto. But yeah, he held nothing back in that final attack, came close, but failed — not being prepared for failure is, I think, a totally valid critique of generals. At the same time, it was close. Some historians think if the Italians had succeeded, if the Austro-Hungarian army had collapsed, it would have meant an early end to the war. I lean more towards your position. It may have shortened the war a little, because the resources used in stabilizing a new front would have been greater, but I don’t think it would have ended the war.
I would have to double check, but off the top of my head, Badoglio’s military reputation was mixed. I think he’s generally given credit for the skillful taking of Monte Sabotino during the 6th Battle of Isonzo (aka the Battle of Gorizia).
The Italians actually took Monte Sabotino easily: the engineers had spent a year sapping forward (through solid rock), so that in some places the jumping off points were actually inside(!) the Austrian wire. The counter attacks may have been rough, but the initial taking of the mountain was achieved with minimal losses. That kind of careful preparation was tried, but wasn’t really repeated, because it took too long (a year!), and after it was all over the Austrians were across the river on a slightly bigger mountain . . . (Monte Santo?)
(I climbed up Monte Sabotino, and tried to imagine how those poor Italian soldiers felt after a year of toil, finally taking the mountain, then looking over at the Austrian positions on Monte Santo, and the steep, steep valley in between the two)
Badoglio somehow escaped the culling that occurred after Caporetto, even though he really deserved a lot of the blame — I think he may have turned on Cadorna at just the right moment (again, I’m not sure). I don’t really know what he did for the rest of the war. (Perhaps he gave good service under Diaz?) He seemed to do fairly well in the interwar period — led the Italian armies to victory in Ethiopia (say what you will, it was a victory). And apparently had enough sense to resign early in WW2 when things started to go badly. Keep in mind that Italians, don’t necessarily, share everybody else’s opinion about Italian military history. 😉
@cplcampisi Thank you. It’s so easy, and tempting, to call people stupid in hindsight. Maybe they were, some more than others.
But looking at situations and decisions in their context, and trying to understand what someone was thinking when they did what they did, is usually far more interesting and satisfying (and difficult) than calling them “the worst”.
Thanks. I’m not sure if I have the words or clarity of thought to express my ideas well. I find that when studying Italian military history there’s a lot of bias, and I try to break through that. I try to question assumptions and look for alternative explanations that might fit the evidence (I hope I do this generally), and ask if the conclusions reached are logical. I feel like most historians — when it comes to Italy — don’t do this, and many other . . .”history enthusiasts(?)” . . . don’t seem to notice. I feel Schindler’s Isonzo was just packed with these biases and “conclusions that don’t really match the evidence” – yet it came highly recommended to me. Maybe it’s just my own biases. 😉
I also want to be clear, I think Mr. Devereaux has really done an excellent job. These articles about the difficulties that generals faced in WW1 articulate the issues perfectly. I guess I feel that most historians tend to take an overly harsh view of Italy (it’s kind of a “default” position), and perhaps I feel compelled to push back against that.
@AlexT, you mentioned trying to understand the thinking of General Cadorna, and I had an opportunity to review what Thompson says about this in the “White War”. Cadorna’s father, Raffaele Cadorna had participated in the 1866 Austro-Italian War. The Italian forces in that campaign suffered from divided command, and it culminated in the embarrassing battle of Custoza. One article describes Custoza as a “soldier’s battle” — “a dramatic way of saying that both command staffs lost control of their forces and let them brawl fairly unchecked until the Italian army gave way.” To give an idea of how confusing such battles can be, at one point, both commands thought they had lost the battle!
Raffaele Cadorna had concluded that the split leadership had caused the disaster, and closed his hand in a clenched fist, to show his son what the command should be like. Apparently repeating the gesture to his son on his deathbed. In my memory, I thought he had linked this to the loss of control at Custoza, but Thompson only links it to the split in the high command . . . it probably applied at the tactical level too. Raffalele instilled in Luigi Cadorna a mindset of strong top-down control, totally run by a single leader. And it appears to have influenced tactical thinking too, with units expected to follow orders issued from the supreme command, unquestioningly. This doesn’t mean he was a Burnside — Cadorna could, and did, modify battle plans on the fly, but if a subordinate wanted to deviate from orders a request had to be sent up the chain of command and approved before they could act.
There’s a certain logic to this on the offensive: keeping the whole working together, and making sure precious resources (like artillery shells, which they often ran out of), weren’t wasted. Although, the developing infiltration tactics would show that such strong top-down control wasn’t all that effective. Even if such top-down control made a certain logic on the offense, it was not well suited to the defense — especially when faced with those infiltration tactics. During the battle of Caporetto, some artillery batteries were overrun without firing a shot! — they were forbidden from firing without orders from higher up, and those orders would never come, as the preparatory bombardment had destroyed the communications.
This desire for control and iron discipline also led to the decimations of units that refused to advance, and the threatening to shoot officers who retreated without orders.
Well, “What ought Cadorna have done?” indeed.
He seems to have a pretty good grasp of how peace deals work in the EUIV ruleset, and he certainly wasn’t treating the war as anything other than a game.
Now, the Italian-Austrian-Ottoman front is one of the most solved questions in EUIV. For the Italian player, it’s simple; group your full army together to discourage interception, then move your forces past the border provinces all the way down into Istria. The AI will see a clear path to the fort in Treviso* and siege it, at which point you should detach a unit or two to finish occupying Istria and bring the rest of your army west immediately, catching the besieging forces. With the enemy recieving -3 on all rolls, you should be all right, and meanwhile your detached troops can take the provinces you skipped like Trieste and Görz. Depending on the scope of the war, you may be able to chase the shattered enemy, but probably you’ll just want to leave your occupations as a distraction while your regrouped army sieges down Kärnten or that fort in Dalmatia; if the enemy ever puts together a threatening force just go back to Istria and repeat.
If an ally does manage to occupy one of the provinces you need, you can usually just Release Aquileia and Cilli and even sometimes Croatia and Dalmatia in the peace deal and diplomatically vassalize them (people vastly overestimate the pain of returning the Friuli Core to Aquileia in exchange for subjugating them, it’s fine).
*if for any reason you have removed the fort from Treviso, restart at 1444.
I was just thinking that seizing Trieste quickly in order to gain it in the peace deal sounds exactly like what I’d do in EU IV as a smaller participant in a large coalition war, hoping to make relatively easy territorial gains without losing too much in the way of manpower. Unfortunately Cadorno failed to realize that EU IV had ended almost a hundred year before and he was now in Vicky II…
The problem here is that the forst and alpine provinces are going to be held by Austria, and not your italian state, so you have to first take those nasty mountain-forts yourself and deal with the -3 rolls.
You’re right that the Alp forts are terrible to attack, so you keep swinging east instead. It’s a quirk of the development rules, but easy lowland forts are usually more warscore than the difficult ones anyway.
As long as the Austrian army is reeling from being crushed against Treviso a couple of times, it’s faster to go coast->Pest->Wien than to go Trentino->Lienz. Or just get into the Balkans, keep mobile, and wait for your allies to become a meaningful distraction–don’t get fixated on a single objective in the Balkans though, I mean what kind of cardona does that?
While we’re picking on Italian generals, Marshal Badoglio also deserves a special place in the history books as (I believe) the only senior General to be embarrassingly defeated in 2 separate World Wars (Caporetto and the invasion of Greece), whilst still retaining enough of his countrymen’s affection to be therafter appointed Prime Minister. Always found that a bit of an enigma
According to the Great War channel, Cadorna’s name was used to denote uselessness or low quality among the Italian immigrants to Argentina. Even today, Argentinians say “Ésto es una cadorna!” to indicate that something is devoid of value.
“But many generals in WWI assumed that superior morale wins wars (which it does) and that morale was always best on the attack (and it is) and therefore concluded that the side on the attack would thus inevitably win, failing to recognize that war is complicated and morale, while a principle factor, is not the only factor.”
“principle” -> “principal”
I’m having flashbacks to Geoffrey Regan’s Someone Had Blundered. I had to set that book down after every chapter and go do something else for a while because the relentless parade of incompetence was so depressing.
That’s ridiculous. It’s not even funny.
Imperium Commissars are telling this guy to cool it. (…or at least they will once they realize his army is less than a million soldiers and not the entire population of a garrison-world.)
To be honest, I feel like Imperium! Cadorna would be up for execution on the grounds of incompetent command and wasting the Emperor’s soldiers.
IIRC, in the next war the soviet armies executed over a hundred thousand of their own soldiers for one crime or another.
When the archives opened in the 90s research showed the figure for executions was much lower than the number of death sentences. The majority of sentences were commuted to lesser punishments.
Given Wikipedia’s recent spate of, shall we say over zealous, re-editing, are you entirely sure that it is safe to still be using it?
I hadn’t heard about this. What’s happening?
I’m sorry if this upsets or offends anyone, or comes across as a bit rant-like.
(Or is really just too long, for which I apologise)
The short version starts with a Wired article.
The part that has me worried is this ..
[A particularly revered medal winner, or a high-ranking one, might survive Coffman’s purge. But the results aren’t pretty. When she arrives at Kurt Knispel’s page, it says that he was “one of the, if not the, greatest tank ace of all time.” His photo shows a young gunner with shaggy blond hair and a goatee. He flashes a smile, unaware that he is doomed.
Unfortunately for Knispel, his reputation rests almost entirely on stories told by Kurowski, as well as an account in the Wehrmachtbericht, the Nazi propaganda broadcast. Coffman strips away the apocryphal stories of action and adventure, like the one that says Knispel was held back from promotions because he assaulted a superior. When she’s done, the article is reduced to four paragraphs, three of which relate to his death, at age 23, when he was struck by a Soviet tank. Later, someone will leave a short, sad note on the article’s Talk page: “There used to be a lot of information here about his military career, unconventional attitude to military discipline etc. … Why has it been deleted?”]
And people on other sites are applauding it!? When it is at best an incredibly lazy and poorly researched edit that could be better.
(Coffman very obviously didn’t do any meaningful work on it at all.)
And has reduced an article to a worthless stub.
Now taking out the obvious propaganda and questionable sources is a valid point. However, there is more to editing an article than taking out the stuff you find questionable, you also have to do the barest minimum of genuine work to update it.
Coffman couldn’t manage this. That’s not rewriting history it is vandalising it.
(When you edit a wikipedia article you are surely taking on the mantle of co-author? And thus have a duty to do a competent job?)
The German wiki does a better job.
And I have tried pointing that out, and suggesting the non-controversial parts be re-edited, using the German wiki as a guide. The response was less than encouraging, if not downright dismissive.
(Really what’s controversial about at the very least adding his service record from the Bundesarchiv?)
The editors of wikipedia seem to have it got into their heads than Franz Kurowski’s Hagiographic works have somehow completely fooled every single serious military historian for the last twenty years. Including George Forty, referenced in the German wiki, the Curator of the Bovington Tank Museum. Saying that the Curator of the world’s largest tank museum is not a reliable source on the subject of Tanks, is a bit like saying that Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t a reliable source on Astronomy!?
My apologies again for the ranting.
(And probably going wildly off topic for Brett’s Blog)
1) people editing Wikipedia with various agendas are nothing new at all
2) removal of bad source, unsourced statements etc is a valid edit, there is no requirement at all to expand article (I lack expertise and time to judge has this person remove also parts based on valid sources)
3) in many cases purging not sourced claims is highly beneficial edit
overall, if you think that something like this disqualifies Wikipedia – you should be aware that it is nothing new. There are people with various agendas and/or obsessive and/or with more time than knowledge and/or malicious and/or dumb and/or incompetent active there for a long, long time.
It’s generally understood that Wikipedia has large areas of unreliability. Articles about competing commercial products are unreliable, because competitors sabotage each other. Most articles about contemporary businesses (like my employer) are just puffy press releases. Articles that relate to contemporary political issues are frequently hijacked by those with partisan or ideological agendas. But articles about things like scientific topics where there is no commercial interest at stake, contemporary topics with no political valence, and history before (say) 1800 are more reliable.
Wikipedia editor here. It’s okay for 100 different bloggers to have 100 different opinions about Luigi Cadorna. Wikipedia, however, can’t do this – it’s going to have exactly one article about Cadorna, or any other topic. As such, it has to pick and choose what facts to highlight. And there’s a direct policy answer: Wikipedia articles take the boring, mainstream, established view. They expect strong, disinterested sources. If there aren’t any such sources, then there’s nothing to say. That doesn’t mean these untold stories aren’t true – many surely are, but are either too cutting edge to know for sure, or are over details too minor to care about. So Wikipedia articles are a choosy subset of true facts, not absolutely all true facts.
Okay, so why do I bring that up? Well, Franz Kurowski is not a reliable source. He wrote fiction mixed with fact. I don’t mean that in an entirely bad way – Dan Brown did the same thing, and sure, there’s some true facts in a Dan Brown novel. But if you’re thinking about adding some true facts in a Dan Brown novel to Wikipedia, you don’t source it Dan Brown, you source it to someone else reliable. Basically, when Kurowski was in fact correct and not making crap up, that content can easily be saved – just source it properly to more boring, less controversial historians. If nobody other than Kurowski is saying it – then it’s not appropriate for Wikipedia, even in the instances where it is in fact true. (Although, frankly, any fact that can only be sourced to ANY single non-primary writer should probably be treated with skepticism..)
The problem being I did point out the bits that Franz Kurowski happened to get right, and honestly discarding him altogether isn’t really something I have an issue with.
The issue is with other wikipedia editors thinking that other more boring less controversial historians are not reliable. The current english wiki still quotes all the same sources as before, including Kurowski? And also 3 other more credible historians, but seems to quote them merely to dismiss them! The German wiki also uses the Bundesarchiv, and a 4th more credible historian.
The objection raised by an editor on wikipedia, in a less than encouraging fashion, to including this, was that apparently every other historian has simply not checked their sources and is repeating Kurowski. And somehow this even applies to the Curator of The Tank Museum (Bovington)!
If the curator of the Bovington Tank Museum is not simply repeating Kurowski, surely it should be possible to identify a source other than Kurowski on the subject?
If someone is prepared to identify anyone who has done reliable research on this man’s history, and quote them, well and good. But there is no need to quote a novelist who made up exciting stories while he was allegedly writing biographies.
It is sadly common for false beliefs to propagate in historical communities because people keep citing and re-citing the same bad claims. The only way to escape this is with rigorous independent scholarship and, importantly, attention paid to removing bad sources.
It is not enough to simply apply the principle of charity and say “surely the curator at Bovington can’t be wrong.” One must first know why the curator at Bovington thought he wasn’t wrong.
@Mark Joseph Casson
>However, there is more to editing
>an article than taking out the stuff
>you find questionable, you also
>have to do the barest minimum
>of genuine work to update it.
Why? Seriously, why?
If you find several paragraphs of outright fiction in the Wikipedia article on, say, Belisarius… why isn’t it a valid and honorable act to simply delete those paragraphs on the grounds that there’s no supporting evidence? Or that the supporting evidence is in fact drawn from a fictional story? Is it somehow making history worse to remove charming lies and leave only the bare facts?
I live quite close to the area. You are 100% right, there’s nothing of major strategic value until Ljubljana ~100 km beyond Gorica.
There are places where it is still possible to visit the fighting positions. I went up mule trails near Kobarid/Caporetto into the mountains, where tunnels were blasted and chiselled into the living rock by the Austro-Hungarian Army. Sitting high above the valley floor in a machine gun and observation post overlooking the whole thing was an intense emotional experience. I’ve rarely felt such intense pity and sadness, I tear up a little just remembering it.
With all these disadvantages on the side of the Italians, I would have expected a loss ratio far worse than the actual 3:4 (average of the 11 Battles, according to wikipedia)
I once heard a story about an Italian general in WWI who ordered his troops to assault the enemy in closed order formation. Yes, you read that right: closed-order assault infantry formations in an era where everyone had long ago transitioned to at least open order. It ended about as well as you’d expect. A few of the Austro-Hungarian machine gunners supposedly were so astonished at the sight of Italian infantry marching at them in tight lines straight from the musket-and-bayonet era that they couldn’t bring themselves to open fire. I couldn’t remember the general’s name, but reading this I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was Cadorna.
Stories like this occur on both sides. In “Un Anno Sull’Altipiano” Emilio Lussu describes a scene where Austro-Hungarians marched straight at their machine gun, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with arms slung (like on a parade ground), singing songs. When one would fall, another from the rear rank would step up and fill the gap. They were absolutely amazed by this. Needless to say the Italians drove back that assault.
That book (English translations known as “The Sardinian Brigade” and “A soldier on the southern front”), is full of unflattering things about Italian generals.
Well, this reinforces my impression that WW1 generals were generally substandard even but not totally incompetent. Though Cadorna was seemingly the worst.
Still, I really want to dwell on Enver Pasha. The defense of Enver generally focuses around his honesty. And I don’t attack his honesty at all. I think Enver Pasha was a genuine Turkish patriot who put his nationality above his person. He really did die defending the peoples of Central Asia in a hopeless battle where he sacrificed himself to save civilians. He also killed significant numbers of Ottoman minorities (by lack of care if not direct intention) and failed to actually form a coherent nation. And he sacrificed significant number of soldiers for what boils down to nationalistic pride. (And lest you think it was necessity, Ataturk managed to adapt similar tactics into a much less lethal form.)
Hitler and Stalin were honest in the sense Enver Pasha was honest. They both truly believed their ideologies. It doesn’t excuse their evil. He did no favors to either the people persecuted or his Turkish countries. I think the deification of Ataturk is problematic. But he deserves it a thousand times more than Enver Pasha.
I’m curious: If you read Ataturk (who was an officer during WW1) he claims he realized the battles were unwinnable. He had a strategy of stalling defeat while slowly retreating. He claimed he had men sit in trenches and then retreat just before the major attacks. Rinse and repeat and you’re losing land. But more slowly than without resistance. I have no idea if this is true or it’d work. But I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
I totally understand Italy wanting Istria. What I don’t understand is going through the Alps to get it when it’s got that lovely coast so very close to Italy’s. Were they incapable of amphibious action or was Trieste that well defended?
I understand that asymmetric technology (mines, torpedo boats, submarines, shore batteries) were especially strong (and feared by Navies) during this period and so resisting a naval attack was much easier than causing one. The strength of seapower is its ability to move and be hard to find until you attack, but if you’re defending a landing site it’s easy for submarines, torpedo attacks etc to know where to find the big targets.
My understanding is that the US Marines developed amphibious tactics during the interwar period (motivated by a desire to find a distinctive role in modern war). Prior to that, including during WWI, navies lacked effective means to land troops on defended coastlines. Even Japanese tactics during WWII relied on finding undefended coast for a landing.
Not sure how well the coastline near Trieste would have been defended, but certainly no WWI army could have carried out anything like D-Day, and no one except the US or those who learned from them could do it during WWII.
Right then, forget Istria. Thing is Italy had the perfect land defense in the Alps, so why attack through there? Maybe they should have stayed neutral….
Well, from the perspective of 2021, we should be able to see that as much of a disaster as he was on all the lower levels of generalship, politically he was a rare genius. There might be other explanations for why an Italian army led so much less competently, with such obviously worse results, would fail to mutiny while the French army came close to catastrophic war-ending mutiny, but the example of Trump and Johnson suggests that Cadorna’s genius achievement was to never admit his mistakes, never take any responsibility for failure, however massive. Even changing the approach would have been at least a tacit admission that the initial approach had been wrong. Once you reach a certain point at or near the summit of any human hierarchy, admitting mistakes and changing behavior is for losers.
Like general milley or emperor biden?
“If I admit my mistakes I’ll look weak” isn’t rare political genius. It’s the oldest trick in the oldest book. Most people don’t recommend that book any more, though.
No one ever recommends that book, but everyone reads it.
My personal litmus test for Bad Generalship is if I, a woman with no military training, can see the problem with the plan of attack. My favorite Bad General is George McClellan, he might not be the worst but dear God he had Lee’s plans at Antietam and he still achieved only a draw!
I have an issue with what is written under the picture of The Lower Vipava Valley. I am no expert at artillery tactics or doctrine, but it seems to me that positioning guns on the hill from which the picture was taken is not a great idea. Muzzle flashes of the guns would be clearly visible from the entire valley and it would be easy for the enemy to hit them with counter battery fire from pretty much everywhere.
For me, a much stronger position would be to place artillery observers on the hill and position batteries behind it and connect them with field telephone wires. That way the observers would have excellent visibility from small, camouflaged holes. The guns could use indirect fire to engage anyone approaching the town while being difficult to locate.
I heard of one possible counterexample: Dien Bien Phu. Reportedly Vietnamese placed their guns on the hill surrounding the French outpost and use direct fire downhill. Somehow managed to camouflage them so well that the French artillery commander killed himself after not being able to locate them for many days. I don’t know if that’s true or how was that possible. I guess dense tropical vegetation helped, but Italy is more arid.
Is there anyone who knows more about those things? Do I make sense?
I believe what you have described is correct. I know that in the mountains they sometimes hauled up light mountain guns into positions where they could fire directly, downwards, on enemy positions. (To be fair, they sometimes hauled very heavy cannons into those positions too!) Also, while most heavy artillery would have been able to elevate the gun barrel sufficiently for the artillery to be emplaced on the reverse slopes, the lighter field guns may not have been able to do so. So, if wishing to utilize such artillery, it may not have been practical to place it on the reverse slope.
The nature of the Italian front, with its mountains and valleys, also resulted in “blindspots” to artillery fire, and made it difficult to properly employ some modern techniques like a creeping barrage.
The Italians ´d alpini in the 19th century
When I was a kid, my father used to sing WWI songs to me (quite a weird habit for somebody whose father was born more than 20 years after the war ended) and while I remember the most famous patriotic ones (Song of the Piave) I also remember a lot of sparse verses saying horrible things about Cadorna (the only one I can quote goes like this: El general Cadorna l’ha dis a la Regina “The vol veder Trieste, te mandi ‘n cartolina”/ General Cadorna told the Queen “do you want to see Trieste, I can send you a postcard”). I think the guy is still hated to this day.
““What ought Cadorna have done?”
There weren’t any great options. Once Italy entered WW1 (not his decision), political requirement was to attack somewhere, very preferably in an area that (some) Italians actually wanted to conquer. All the other possible direct fronts with Austria are even worse than Isonzo, and an amphibious landing against a defended Austrian shore was beyond Italian capabilities.
Sending out Italians troops to France/Mediterranean fronts wasn’t politically possible: For one thing, the allies did not want the Italians due to their own designs. For another, such an involvement would leave Italy without any cards in the negotiations afterwards. And also it wouldn’t advance any Italian designs directly. So it was politically impossible.
The only other politically possible front was the Balkans – where Italy could intervene directly, had some claims with internal legitimacy, and where Italy did fight! Somehow the Balkan front is always forgotten about, despite the Vardar offensive playing a huge (underappreciated) role in collapsing both Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. A commitment there was the only politically-possible alternative to Isonzo, but I’m unsure whether Italian/allied logistics could have handled a larger commitment. If they had, the result would have been a very different mobile war, possibly superior to what happened in history. If not, Cadorna may have not had any choice but to attack again and again in Isonzo – which does not excuse his other failures.
Point of order: the image link to the Wikipedia portrait of Boroevic is broken (404). A working link is at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/92/Svetozar_Boro%C3%ABvi%C4%87_von_Bojna_1914.jpg
All points of order must be raised only while seated and wearing a hat.
I have, however, fixed the image (I think).