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.