"May any cowardice die here. Let all the classes and all parties that sincerely love the homeland merge in a single outburst of pride and faith, to repeat as during the memorable days of May 1915 to the enemy who listened in ambush: Italy knows only the way of honour."
(Gen. Luigi Cadorna)
During neutrality, Italian politics were divided and inflamed by the fight between interventionists and neutralists, affecting military choices. In fact, the Royal Italian Army accepted its technical role, awaiting precise orders that were delayed, avoiding to weigh in on the government’s choices. Even the war plans drawn up by the Royal Army General Staff reflected the inherent contradictions in Italian politics. In the event of war with France, the Army General Staff operations plan was to send three Army Corps (about 150.000 soldiers) under the leadership of General Alberto Pollio into the Rhine valley in support of the German troops. However, in 1914, another operation plan was designed to contain a possible Austro-Hungarian invasion, concentrating the bulk of the army between the Piave and the Venetian plain.
After the sudden death of Pollio, Luigi Cadorna entered the scene. In the nine months of neutrality, he found himself in the difficult situation of having to prepare the army for a now certain conflict, without any orders or precise directives. The government remained the decision-making body, whereas the military was subordinated to a consultative position; this did not allow them to make important decisions, such as the mobilisation and allocation of resources and measures at the border. There was, therefore, a substantial lack of collaboration between Cadorna and the government: the former was engaged to revamp the role of the army and setting up a foreign policy of power, whereas the latter continued to defend their prerogatives.
Despite the overlap of responsibilities, a plan to improve the army had commenced nevertheless. The number of officers increased, with promotions and accelerated training courses. The stocks of ammunition for the Carcano 91 musket were increased, and good quality 75 mm cannons were introduced in the artillery.
Even these measures, however, testified to the inability of the Italian leaders to understand the events occurring during the initial months of the war. Despite the news from the French front suggesting a more defensive and less reckless approach, Cadorna adopted an action plan that put an emphasis on the "cult of the offensive," with light forces that lashed mercilessly against assaults from their opponents. The idea of the "generalissimo" was to concentrate all efforts on the Isonzo front, the only one that allowed significant offensive actions. By passing through the area leading from Tolmin to the sea, it opened a corridor between the plateaus of the Karst region as far as Ljubljana and Vienna.
Thus, whereas larger calibre weapons appeared and trenches equipped with machine guns were dug on the Western front, the Royal Italian Army crossed the Piave with little heavy artillery and with light guns unsuitable to defeat the fortifications. Machine guns were almost non-existent; in July 1915 there were only 618. The order for Vickers machine guns was not completed, and the Fiat 1914 machine gun struggled to enter into full production.
Another weak point was the slowness and the confusion with which mobilisation took place. Although in May of 1915 a good 400 thousand men were amassed in Veneto, only two Army Corps could be defined as prepared and ready for combat. The plans of 1914 calculated 23 days as the time necessary for troops to reach the border, but the army was ready only in the first half of July, more than a month and a half after the declaration of war. Attempts to accelerate the timing of the initial offensive were in vain.
It is difficult to make an overall judgment on the preparation of the armed forces and the work of Cadorna in the aftermath of May 24th. The army went to war better prepared and organised compared with 1914, although with enormous shortcomings in its heavy artillery and machine guns. Equally difficult to assess was the strategic approach: in Italy, Cadorna was often judged harshly for the obstinacy with which he launched his troops into massacre, whereas, abroad, the English historian Basil H. Liddell Hart called him "a man of uncommon skill." It may be argued that the Commander-in-Chief of the Italian troops was a General who lacked originality. In February 1915, Cadorna circulated the so-called Libretta Rossa among his officers; there he expounded the methods by which war must be carried out: frontal attacks, supported by the artillery, repeated in order to achieve their objectives. The Libretta gave great importance to the energy of the officers in command and the superiority of the moral strength of troops launched into battle.
It was an overhaul of the elan of the French school, in which military culture was based on the cult of the offensive and trust in the ruthless energy of command, which could overwhelm any defence. Thus, in spite of the black legend of Cadorna’s mediocrity, it can be said that he was simply in line with the mentality of the time, and, like other military leaders, he was unable to perceive the changes imposed by the new weaponry and industrial society.
The war in which Italy was preparing to fight far exceeded the resources of the nation. In addition to the difficulties imposed by the rough terrain, where the enemy occupied dominant and defensible positions, the main obstacle to overcome was the sacrifice required from the nation and army. Some figures will be useful to outline the Italian effort. The number of machine guns increased from 618 in May 1915 to 8,200 in May 1917, light artillery from 1,797 pieces to 2,452, and heavy artillery rose from 132 to 2,101 pieces.