Cadorna was born in Pallanza, September 4, 1850, the son of a prominent Piedmontese military family. His father, General Raffaele Cadorna, was a distinguished military leader during the period of Italian unification. Luigi Cadorna's son was a major figure in the anti-German resistance effort in Italy during World War II.
Luigi Cadorna became an artillery officer in 1868. He passed through the General Staff Academy and, by 1898, had become a major general. Ten years later, he was offered the post of army chief of staff. Cadorna declined the honor. He could not get the government to allow him full control over the army in both peacetime and during war. He refused to share authority with the minister of war. Cadorna's father had exhibited during his own career this same distrust of civilian authority over the army. The younger Cadorna was fated to make it a major issue during World War I.
Cadorna accepted the post of chief of staff when it was offered to him a second time, in late July 1914, as Europe hung on the edge of war. Prepared to fight alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary in accordance with the Triple Alliance, he was preparing to move troops to the Rhine and the Alpine frontier with France when Premier Salandra declared Italian neutrality on August 2. The next months brought repeated conflict between Cadorna and government leaders.
The general saw the danger of an Austrian attack following on the heels of Italy's desertion of her diplomatic partners. Salandra refused to permit the chief of staff to mobilize fully on Italy's eastern frontier. After the battle of the Marne, when Salandra began to consider entering the war on the side of the Entente, Cadorna objected that the army was not equipped to stand up to a winter campaign. Salandra and his recently appointed foreign minister, Sidney Sonnino occupied Albania in late 1914. Cadorna objected that such sideshows drained forces needed to guard Italy's borders with Austria-Hungary.
The Italian entry into the war came in May 1915, and Cadorna led his troops in the first assault on the Isonzo line in June. Cadorna had used the period of preparation to plan a smooth mobilization, to bolster Italy's artillery units, and to reinforce the border fortresses. Cadorna was at his best as a military organizer, but the test of combat indicated at once that even these measures were insufficient. Between June and December 1915, Cadorna sent his armies into four offensives on the Isonzo. Each brought the same dismal results: tiny gains in the rugged mountain terrain at the cost of huge numbers of casualties. The losses in trained junior officers were particularly appalling.
Cadorna's response was to keep hammering away. His frontal tactics, which he could not pretend to support with sufficient artillery, mirrored the worst examples of fruitless slaughter on the western front. He met sinking morale with brutal discipline.
Summary executions and even decimation were practices, not just threats, in the Italian army. The officer corps suffered in a parallel, if not quite equal, fashion: Cadorna fired hundreds of senior officers. Such practices might have found justification in a short, victorious war, but Cadorna, likely the least popular commander in his own army on the Allied side, sank deeper into a war of attrition. Like General Joffre in France, he felt he had to attack, if only to support his allies he, like Joffre, had no solution to the problem of the attacks not working in the fashion that he conducted them.
Friction with the politicians intensified, as one might expect. Cadornam - again the parallel in France comes to mind - simply excluded political observers from the war zone. But this wall was soon breached by such figures as Leonida Bissolati, a member of the Chamber of Deputies who, at age fifty-eight, enlisted in a combat regiment and returned regularly to Rome to tell his colleagues what transpired at the front. Cadorna also collided with the Salandra-Sonnino team's desire to fight a war against Austria alone. More the realist than they, Cadorna saw he had to coordinate his operations with the needs of fellow belligerents like the Russians. The test of Italy's willingness to be a wartime partner with Britain and France came in the form of requests to send troops to Salonika. Cadorna favored the idea; Sonnino blocked it.
By early January 1916, Sonnino and other cabinet leaders wanted to put a halt to Cadorna's quasiindependent status. But the Italian commander curtly rejected their call for a defense council that would place him on a par with civilian authorities. The spring brought Cadorna's career to the edge of disaster. After facing repeated Italian offensives on the Isonzo, the Austrians responded with the Strafexpedition: this was a powerful thrust southward from the Trentino, the less active of the two Austro-Italian fighting fronts. Using veteran troops with large quantities of heavy artillery at their disposal, the Austrian Eleventh Army nearly cut into the Venetian plains. Cadorna had gotten wind of an enemy offensive, but he failed to foresee the inadequacy of the Italian defenses. As rumors ran that Cadorna might retreat to the Piave, Salandra was on the edge of firing the Italian commander. The premier's crumbling authority, he was voted out of office in early June, made him hold back. Meanwhile, Cadorna, who, according to Seton-Watson, was at his best in times of crisis, stabilized the front. The Italians enjoyed the advantage of interior lines of communication, and Cadorna called in troops from the Isonzo and from as far away as Albania to stem the Austrian tide.
The new government of Paolo Boselli put unsettling personalities like Bissolati into the cabinet. But Cadorna was able to begin his relationship with the new cabinet by presenting them with Italy's first great military victory of the war. In early August, his forces crossed the Isonzo to establish a bridgehead at Gorizia. But this brought dangers as well. The hero of Gorizia, the dashing General Capello, had good political connections and the look of a potential successor to Cadorna. The chief of staff exiled him to the now quiet Trentino. This was at best a temporary solution. Cadorna's reputation now had to absorb more bad news: three new offensives on the Isonzo (September to November) restored the old pattern of bloody futility.
The year 1917 brought the Caporetto onslaught and Cadoma's downfall. Danger signals came early. At the Rome conference (January 1917), Allied leaders turned aside the Italian government's request for a grand offensive launched from Italian territory that year against Austria. New offensives on the Isonzo, notably the Eleventh (August-September 1917) were costly enough to sap Italian morale, but they were successful enough to rouse Vienna to call in German aid. Word spread of the August peace initiative announced by Pope Benedict XV with its talk of "useless carnage."
As in the case of the Strafexpedition, Cadorna knew danger was lurking over the nearby mountain ranges. Russia was plummeting out of the war; both German and Austro-Hungarian divisions were now freed for action against Italy. But Cadorna saw the peril approaching only in the spring of 1918; and he pictured it in the shape of a simultaneous attack on the middle Isonzo and the Trentino lines. The breakthrough on the lightly held northern sector of the Isonzo line caught him with no reserves at hand. Moreover, offensive-minded subordinates like Capello, now back on the Isonzo, had ignored his precautionary call to pull heavy artillery units west of the Isonzo just in case.
The Germans struck on October 24. The Second Army gave way and the entire front collapsed. Cadorna's conduct did not at first match his coolness under fire at the time of the Straf expedition. He hesitated for two days, then (early on October 27) ordered a general retreat. As the enemy surged across the Tagliamento River, Cadorna hesitated again; then (on November 4) he ordered his battered armies back to the Piave.
Falls credits Cadorna with a good performance in directing the last stages of the Italian retreat. The army now stood on a line it could hope to hold. But Cadorna's career was in shreds. On November 3, in a pessimistic message to Rome, he hinted at the need for a separate peace. He was known to be considering a retreat beyond the Piave to the Adige-Mincio line. His open criticism of his own armies, which he accused of cowardice, and of the home front, where he saw sedition running wild, sealed his fate. On October 30, Premier Vittorio Orlando replaced Boselli and pledged to oust Cadorna. Italy's allies gathered at Rapallo on November 5 and added their voices to the demand that Cadorna depart. On November 7 he gave up his command to General Diaz.
Cadorna served briefly on the inter-Allied Supreme War Council at Versailles. When the Italian Chamber of Deputies voted to investigate the Caporetto disaster, Cadorna resigned in protest and retired to private life. The parliamentary report was published only in 1919; it focused blame for the defeat on Italy's military leaders, evoking Cadorna's outrage. Mussolini eased the pain in 1924 by elevating the retired Cadorna to the rank of field marshal. The promotion came at the same time that Diaz, Cadorna's more fortunate successor, received an identical honor. Cadorna died at Bordighera, December 21,1928