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

Thursday, March 28, 2024

On the Generalship of Armando Diaz

Maresciallo d'Italia Armando Diaz

The Italian Army's Supreme Commander for much of the Great War, Luigi Cadorna, is usually listed near the top of the list of the war's "Donkey Generals." However, his post-Caporetto replacement performed quite capably but is, today, mostly forgotten. This is partly due to the fact that—postwar—he served in Mussolini's first Fascist government. I think his year in the top job was impressive and worth recalling.

An Italian of Spanish descent and born in Naples, Armando Diaz (1861–1928) started his military career very early. After attending the military school at Nunziatella, he became an artillery officer at the military academy in Turin in 1884. His first active service was during the war against Turkey in 1911, where he served as a lieutenant colonel and infantry commander in Libya. Promoted to major general in 1914, he was assigned to Luigi Cadorna’s (1850–1928) staff when Italy joined World War I. 

In 1916, he asked to serve in a combatant unit and was promoted to lieutenant general and commander of the 49th Division in the 3rd Army at the Isonzo Front. After being wounded in service, he received a silver medal for his valuable military contributions.After the defeat at Caporetto, Diaz replaced Cadorna as chief of the  general  staff on 9 November 1917, while the great retreat was still underway. He led the reorganization of the remaining forces to stand on the Monte Grappa massif and along the Piave River, which successfully halted the German and Austro-Hungarian offensive.

Later, under his command, the Italian Army, supported by reinforcements from the British, French, and Americans, would gain its two greatest victories of the war.  The first was the June 1918 defeat of the Austro-Hungarian "last ditch" offensive of the war, known as the Battle of the Piave River. Subsequently, he organized and trained his forces for the decisive conflict of the Italian Front, which came to be known as the Battle of Vittorio Veneto.

Vittorio Veneto looms large in the Italian national psyche, as well it should. It was a decisive battle that defeated Austria-Hungary and redeemed Italia Irredenta. It is also the most  significant victory by the Italian army in the history of the nation, before or after. 

King Vittorio Emanuele III, General Diaz and Third Army Commander the Duke of Aosta at a Postwar Awards Ceremony

After the defeat of the enemy's June attack along the Piave River, General Diaz corrected the poor "lessons learned" system of General Cadorna with a system that analyzed information at the Commando Supremo level and distributed it to the army. The first fruit of this new system was a detailed analysis of the Battle of the Piave issued to the field in July of 1918. The lessons learned during the Battle of the Piave would be put to use during Vittorio Veneto.

The Battle of Vittorio Veneto started on October 24, 1918 with attacks across the breadth of the theater of operations from the Trentino to the sea. The Austrians repulsed the initial Italian Fourth Army attacks along the Grappa, and sent some of their best units to the area. Diaz was not like Cadorna; he had the vision to see how actions linked together. The attack of the Fourth Army was drawing in the Austrian reserves, just as Diaz wanted.

 On 26 October Diaz sent everything he had across the Piave. The Piave is a river with a strong current, and was in flood. Many of the bridges were swept away by the current, but by evening the Italian Eighth, Twelfth, and Tenth Armies had established some small bridgeheads. Air resupply replenished the forces in the bridgeheads when the bridges were destroyed. The Italian breakthrough started when the XVIIIth Army Corps, which had been in reserve, crossed the Piave on the Tenth Army bridge during the night of 27–28 October, and attacked along the boundary between the Fifth and Sixth Austrian armies. The Austrian Sixth Army commander, facing a threat to his lines of communication, ordered a retreat to the second defensive line. The order for the retreat was the beginning of the end for the Austrians.

The fighting around Mte Grappa was still intense, but the  Austrians were approaching exhaustion. Along the Piave the Italians were starting to pour across. By 1 November the Battle  became an Italian race for territory. A naval expedition seized  Trieste on 3 November. On 4 November, Italy and Austria-Hungary  signed an armistice. In his victory message Diaz announced: "The Austro-Hungarian Army is vanquished. . ."

The Italian victory of Vittorio Veneto owed much to the exhausted state of Austria-Hungary but only after Italian forces had broken the frontline defenses of the Austrian army. The rear elements of the Austrian army, particularly some of the reserve divisions of the Sixth Army, had refused to fight even before the breakthrough of the XVIIIth Army Corps. When the XVIIIth Army Corps broke through the Austrian defenses they capitalized on the demoralized state of forces in the Austrian rear, clearly validating Clausewitz's statement that "a threat to the rear can, therefore, make a defeat more probable, as well as more decisive."

The strategic aim of Vittorio Veneto was the defeat of the Austrian army, which in turn would end the war. Diaz believed that if the Italians could break through the Austrian defenses the demoralized army would not withstand the defeat; he was right. The difference in the way Diaz pursued the strategic aim, in contrast to Lundendorff or Cadorna, was that he committed the forces appropriate to the task. Diaz accepted a great deal of risk at Vittorio Veneto by committing everything Italy had to the attack. The class of 1900 had already been called up, and some of the boys of the class of 1899 were already in the line. Diaz had no reserves left.

Monument  at Bassano del Grappa to the Boys of the
Class of 1899 Who Fought in the Final Battle

The contribution of Vittorio Veneto to Allied victory is underrated. The Austrian army was defeated in the field. There was no doubt in the mind of Austria-Hungary that she was defeated. Ludendorff wrote in a letter to Count Lerchenfeld that at "Vittorio Veneto Austria did not lose a battle, but a war, and herself, bringing Germany down in the ruins with her . . . if Austria had not collapsed, we could still have gained time and resisted without difficulty during the whole winter."

After the war, Diaz was appointed a senator. In 1921, he was ennobled by King Victor Emmanuel III and given the title of 1st Duca della Vittoria ("Duke of the Victory"). Benito Mussolini named him Minister of War in 1922, and upon retirement in 1924, he was given the honour of Maresciallo d'Italia (Marshal of Italy).

Sources: Operational Art on the Italian Front During the Great War, Robert C. Todd. Army Command and General Staff Coll, Fort Leavenworth, KS, School of Advanced Military Studies, 1992; 1914-1918 Online; Wikipedia

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