Luigi Cadorna: lights and shadows

Pallanza 1850 - Bordighera 1928

Luigi Cadorna, the general who led the Royal Italian Army to Caporetto, was born in Pallanza on the 4th of September 1850. Son of Count Raffaele Cadorna, the general who led the army in the conquest of Rome in 1870, Cadorna soon launched his military career, attending the Teuliè Military School in Milan and the Military School of Torino. His career made swift progress up the hierarchy to occupy the role of Chief of Staff of the Army, in July 1914.

With the entry of Italy into World War I, Cadorna finally had a way to put in practice his convictions on carrying out the offensive. He presented himself at the front as an esteemed general, but still lacked experience. In fact during the various wars fought by Italy until then, military campaigns with often uncertain and sometimes disastrous results, he had never occupied positions of command.

Called to direct a poorly trained army with a chronic heavy weapon crisis, he insisted on pursuing the strategy of frontal attacks in compact columns, which caused a terrible stream of losses. Led by a radical sense of duty and the conviction that everything should be sacrificed for victory, Cadorna was hated by the troops and officers.

The authoritarian inclination of the "generalissimo" and the continual dismissal of officers who contested directives from above, led him to surround himself with colleagues of low quality, an element that paradoxically loosened Cadorna’s control over other authoritative generals such as Luigi Capello. Meanwhile his relationships with the government and the parliament gained him very little political support.

Despite these negative elements, one must emphasize that Cadorna was able to manage various critical situations. At the time of the Strafexpedition, in May of 1916, due to the risk of a collapse of the front, he reacted with determination, stopping the offensive with an influx of reinforcements and concentrating reserve troops in the Plains of Vicenza. It was a major logistical manoeuvre conducted with decision and intelligence. Avoiding the danger of a breach in Trentino, Cadorna ordered the preparation of defensive and logistical posts on the Monte Grappa, confirmed as a winning choice during the Caporetto retreat.

After the conquest of Gorizia, due to constantly increasing losses, Cadorna began tentatively to doubt the validity of a full-out offensive, adopting the alternate strategy of stopping the frontal attack when this became too “costly” in terms of human lives. However, this solution was shown to be a failure, either because of the increased Austro-Hungarian defensive capacity, or the inability of the Italian general to find alternative solutions. Even more serious was that Cadorna had an increasingly reduced control over his subordinates, which made it difficult to stop the offensive early. Likewise, later pushes on the Isonzo had the effect of conquering only a few kilometres of difficult to defend terrain, as well as exhausting further divisions already sorely tried by the severity of the front.

The generalissimo’s poor attention regarding the moral and material conditions of the troops, now stretched to their limits and unable to support other offensive efforts, contributed to the disaster of Caporetto on 24 October 1917. Cadorna was subject to violent accusations against which he defended himself clumsily, accusing the soldiers of cowardice and low resistance. In fact, some divisions were overcome with extreme ease, while others fought bravely; however, the disaster of Caporetto was due primarily to Cadorna’s unrealistic strategy, shared by the other military leaders. Trenches located at exposed positions, divisions left on the front line for long periods, no relief that could make the war less miserable, and little leave, undermined the morale and combativeness of the troops. To Cadorna alone was attributed the underestimation of the attack, despite the information provided by Austro-Hungarian deserters. The lack of reserve troops and disorganization of the chain of command transformed what should have been a modest attack into a debacle. It is noteworthy that on 27 October Cadorna abandoned the general quarters of Udine, moving to Treviso, more than one hundred kilometres from the front, without leaving any high-ranking officer to manage the retreat.

Accused of being the primary person responsible for the disaster, Cadorna still had time to organize the defence on the Piave, before being replaced by Armando Diaz. Isolated from the military and political environment, Cadorna retired to private life, retreating into a haughty silence and committing the defence of his actions to two volumes of memoirs. After the war, he did not join the fascist movement; however, Mussolini nominated him, along with Diaz, as Field Marshal of Italy. He died in Bordighera on 21 December 1928.