The Magazine

Battle for Italy

The hard war in Europe's soft underbelly.

Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Luigi Cadorna was a myopic careerist who had entered military school in Turin at the age of 10. His ascent was swift: captain in 1880, major in 1883, colonel in 1892, major general in 1898, lieutenant general in 1905, and chief of Italy's general staff in 1908. When the king stepped aside and urged him to become supreme commander in 1915, Cadorna insisted on (and was given) absolute power. There would be none of the rivalries that bedeviled Garibaldi in 1866; Cadorna's ruthlessly unimaginative approach to war met with no opposition.

Of course, in the Great War, strategic obtuseness was not exactly uncommon. On the Western Front, after the French suffered 143,567 casualties at Loos (1915), Marshal Joffre resolved to intensify the fight: "We shall kill more of the enemy than he can kill of us."

Thus was born attrition, "that last resort of paralyzed strategy," as the poet Charles Hamilton Sorley put it, who was himself killed at Loos. Toleration for huge casualties became a staple of the war, and the Battle of Verdun was attrition personified, killing 700,000 men along a front of 15 miles. "The folly, the waste, and the stupendous courage of the men who fought at Verdun seem to belong to an age a thousand years removed from our own," writes the historian Alistair Horne.

The same could be said about the staggering attrition suffered by the Italians in the battles of the Isonzo (11 in all, and all of them defeats) along the 400-mile mountainous front, which the Austrians carefully fortified before the Italians entered the war. The Italians lost 300,000 men in these futile engagements, which followed an invariable pattern: The Italians attacked and the Austrians mowed them down from higher, defensive positions. At times, the carnage became so revolting that the Austrians urged the Italians to desist: "Italians! Go back! We don't want to massacre you," survivors recalled the Austrians calling out.

Thompson writes, "If there is any proof that such scenes played out on other fronts I have not found it." They attest to the unique odds against which the Italians fought-which were made worse by the singularly unforgiving mountainous terrain of the mostly static battlefields. Lack of camouflage, snow-blindness, and avalanches were persistent killers; and on December 13, 1916, which became known as "White Friday," 10,000 soldiers were killed in avalanches.

John Keegan has put the campaign leading up to Caporetto-when the Austrians finally went on the offensive and routed the Italians-in dispassionate perspective:

In the circumstances it was highly creditable that the Italian army had persisted in eleven costly and fruitless assaults on Austria's mountain borderland. The incidence of an offensive every three months, between May 1915 and August 1917, was higher than that demanded of the British and French armies on the Western Front .  .  . shellfire on the rocky terrain caused 70 percent more casualties per round expended than on the soft ground in France and Belgium.

Moreover, the discipline meted out to the Italians was savage. After each defeat, Cadorna practiced the old Roman policy of decimation, randomly picking men from the ranks and executing them in a mad attempt to deter slackers. As Keegan writes, "It is unlikely that the British or Germans would have stood for such 'normal persuasion' and it is a tribute to Italy's sorely tried and dumbly uncomplaining peasant infantrymen that they did."

The statistics of Caporetto speak for themselves: The Italians lost 12,000 dead with 30,000 wounded; 294,000 were taken prisoner and 350,000 deserted. Only half of the army's 65 divisions survived the rout intact, and half the artillery was lost, including 300,000 guns, 300,000 rifles, and 3,000 machine guns, as well as 1,600 motor vehicles.

Caporetto was an unmitigated disaster. Indeed, as Thompson points out, "The prime fear of dissolution" to which the defeat gave rise

survives in metaphor. Corruption scandals are still branded "a moral Caporetto." Politicians accuse each other of facing an "electoral Caporetto." .  .  . This figure of speech stands for more than simple defeat; it involves a hint of stomach-churning exposure-rottenness laid bare.