Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Cadorna's Strategic Vision: Take Vienna

Marker in the Village of Corno di Rosazzo Where
the First Shot of the War on the Italian Front Was Fired

Holger Herwig in his work The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary first introduced me to Italian General Liugi Cardorna's mad victory plan that was the operational "theory" behind  Italy's entry into the war. His objective was the capture of Vienna to compel the Dual Monarchy to make the territorial concessions the Italian leadership was seeking.

Cadorna proposed a main attack from Friuli across the Isonzo River, a defensive posture around the Austrian Trentino salient, and secondary attacks in the direction of Tolblach and Carinthia. . . [T]he first battles would take place two or three days' march inside the Austrian frontier, to be followed within 45 days by a decisive battle on the Ljubljana plain, from where he would launch his final assault on Vienna.  In April 1915, Cadorna repeated his assurance that he would be in Trieste and threatening the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire within a month of the outbreak of war. . . What the military historian John Gooch has called Cadorna's "amazing strategic vision of a march on Vienna" and "complete disregard of the realities of trench warfare" were seconded by Victor Emmanuel III's Order of the Day on 27 May 1915.

I haven't thought much about this hare-brained scheme that utterly failed at the start since reading Herwig's book, but I recently came across a U.S. Army staff study of the war on the Italian Front. It has some interesting insights on Cadorna that I thought were worth sharing.

General Luigi Cadorna

Italy ended its neutrality by signing the Treaty of London on 26 April 1915. The treaty stipulated that Italy would share in war indemnities, pressure the Pope not to initiate peace moves, and start hostilities within one month. The Allies promised Italy war loans, and strange as it might seem, protection from Austrian attack.

A small group of men working in secret had brought Italy to war. Their war aim of acquiring territory was clear, but they did not know how to achieve that aim, or even if it was militarily possible. Prime minister Salandra gave the job of translating the national aim and his policy of sacro egoismo, (sacred egoism) into a workable military strategy to General Luigi Cadorna.

General Cadorna had started on this translation when he rewrote the war plans in December of 1914. Italy had always planned a defensive war against Austria, but would now wage an offensive one. It would be offensive because Cadorna felt Italy had to defeat Austria-Hungary decisively enough to persuade her to give up parts of her empire. Cadorna saw Vienna as the only objective significant enough to cause the Austrians to lose the will to fight. His plan was to strike toward Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and once on the Ljubljana plain to turn north toward Vienna." He assumed that the Austrians would not be able  to reinforce the defensible terrain along the line formed by the  Julian and Carnic Alps because of concentric actions by allies,  particularly Russia. 

Cadorna's fixation on the geographical point of Vienna, something that was probably never realistically attainable, effectively closed off Italy's other options to win the war. By focusing on the defeat of the Austrians in the field, Cadorna ignored the lessons of Italian history that clearly favored other options over a decisive defeat of Austria on the battlefield.

Cadorna's Road to Vienna on Modern Highways

Except for the Ethiopia fiasco, Italy had reached her aims without decisive victories, and even in spite of defeats on the battlefield. Whatever the Italian failings on the field of battle, her success in war settlements was outstanding. By fixing on an independent defeat of Austria on the battlefield Italy closed off what historically had been her most successful option; let your allies win it for you. . . The desire for a decisive Italian defeat of Austria meant  that Italy would pursue an independent course during the war. She would neither receive or give much support in the way of troops or materiel [until late in the war after the Caporetto fiasco].

In spite of these prewar difficulties, when Italy entered the war Austria-Hungary had over ten months of experience in working with her German ally under wartime conditions. mere were still many problems, but Austria-Hungary would practice a form of coalition warfare while Italy operated independently of her allies. Italian operations would often be hampered by concentric and parallel allied operations that would not happen as expected. Italy declared war on 23 May1915 against Austria-Hungary, but not against Germany. Cadorna's plan depended on speed, surprise, and the front staying mobile. Unfortunately for the Italians, the declaration of war before mobilization was complete alerted the Austrians. Even though the Austrians had started to reinforce the Italian Front as early as April 1915, by May they still had only 100,000 troops to Italy's 875,000. To compensate for this disadvantage, Archduke Eugene, the Austrian commander for  the Italian theater, used his geographical advantage of holding  the higher terrain to compensate for his smaller number of troops. 

Cadorna's plan was to defend in the Trentino while attacking toward the Ljubljana plain, but the first Italian offensive action took place in the Trentino. The Italian First Army attacked the southern sector toward Adige while the Fourth Army attacked toward Brenta in the Southeast. The Italian soldiers willingly pressed the attacks but were hampered by ineffective artillery fire and general ineptness. The Austrians watched, undoubtedly with amusement, as brass bands advanced with the attacker. The Austrians fell back to their fortified positions and held. Try as they might, the Italians could not dislodge them.

While the First and Fourth Armies were experiencing the difficulties of fighting an uphill battle in the Trentino, the Italian Second and Third Armies moved toward the Julian Alps.  For the first two to three days their advances were unopposed, but their slow movement gave the Austrians time to reinforce the front with forces from the Serbian and Russian fronts. The Austrian forces fell back from an indefensible line along the Judrio River to an excellent defensive line along the Isonzo. Italian attempts  to force a bridgehead at Gorizia failed, setting the stage for a static front and attrition warfare. 

Terrain Along the Isonzo
(10th Battle of the Isonzo Shown)

The Isonzo front stretched along incredibly difficult terrain. Peaks towered 600 meters over the valley floors. The eastern end of the line was anchored on the sea. The western end of the line rested in mountainous terrain. Cadorna's plan did not anticipate a static front along this line, primarily because he counted on Allied action to prevent the Austrians from reinforcing the front quickly enough to prevent a breakout onto the Ljubljana plain; this did not happen. Russia was unable to launch simultaneous offensive operations because it was tied down by the Central Powers' Gorlice-Tarnow offensive. Serbia could have done something but literally let the Austrian troops march under her guns on their way to the Isonzo front. Another reason the plan failed was the slow-motion advance of the Italian corps commanders. The slow advances let the Austrians seize key positions that the Italians should have taken without loss."'

Cadorna's initial plan failed, and unfortunately for 600,000 sons of Italy who would lose their lives in the next three-and-a-half years, he showed no flexibility in seeking alternative  means for victory. The Italians and Austro-Hungarians were faced  off along the Isonzo, and the stage was set for some or the worst  attrition warfare of the war.

Source:  "Operational Art on the Italian Front During the Great War," Maj. Robert C. Todd, School of Advance Military Studies


  1. That's an important analysis. Many accounts of the Italian theater focus on the end, not the start.

  2. Keep up the articles on an often forgotten front.