Chief of Staff
App Esercito Italiano
Timeline of War on the Italian front
Italian operations in brief
The war plans against Austria-Hungary
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| The war plans against Austria-Hungary
Before the difficult European situation led Italy to draw up the Triple Alliance becoming one of the Central Powers, there was only a chance of war and it was against Austria-Hungary for several reasons; all the reasons can be summarized with the adjective “historical” because they originated from the circumstances that led to the development of the national Risorgimento and the consequent dissatisfactions at the end of that heroic period. But Italy could not think about doing a war because of its defensive aspect that would have led itself to suffer a war against Austria. That uncertainty or fear is the key of all the developments in the Italian policy since 1866, the year of the political alliance with Prussia; its policy assumes aspects of wisdom even if it is not recognised in that way by everyone. As consequence the first Italian operational plans were defensive plans that considered the river Adige as the line for the Army formation. In an in-depth study the General Cosenz, the first Chief of the Army General Staff, demonstrated that the Adige line was a rearward line. He set an advanced line, the Piave line, because of the greater strength of the Austro-Hungarian Army, the advantages of its border with mountain scenery and the favorable operational chances of the Trento fortress. That risk was worth taking in order not to lose the benefit of having the Veneto Plain for the defense, thanks to its road network useful for the operation.
The railway network of that period permitted the assembly along the Piave and, according to the initial operational plan, the following formation was established:
a special Corp, along the Tagliamento river, to defend the Piave line. That Corp would have been composed of 1 infantry Division, 1 Bersaglieri Brigade, 2 cavalry Divisions;
Army, from the Stelvio Pass to Paralba Mount, with the front to the North along the Trento fortress;
and the 2
Army on the Piave river;
Army as a reserve on the Po river, between Bologna, Ferrara and Modena.
The original plan changed after gradual developments in the road and railway network as well as the works to fortify the border; it was also the aim of in-depth studies, particular previsions and concrete projects by the General Tancredi Saletta while he was Chief of the General Staff of the Army. The cavalry Divisions for the coverage on the Tagliamento river became three and the 4
Army, as a reserve, had a more advanced formation on the Bacchiglione-Brenta line. Apart from some integrations (on the base of evaluations) about the deployment in the region of Puglia of an Army Corp and of a Division in the Capital, the study and the consequent preparation of a possible conflict against Austria-Hungary did not change until when the General Pollio became Chief of the General Staff of the Army (1908). The defensive concept remained unchanged; by contrast the deployment changed becoming more intrepid for the major efficiency acquired by the Army. The 1
and the 4
Army had to take a position from the Giudicarie Alps to the Piave Valley, through the Asiago Plateau, in order to defend the dangerous Trento fortress. The 2
and the 3
Army would have been deployed along the Piave. The three cavalry Divisions would have assured the coverage on the left bank of the Tagliamento river. Two Army Corps (deployed in the area already prepared for the 4
Army) would have been reserve forces. An Army Corp and a Division would have had an anti-landing function for caution, respectively in Sicily and Lazio. Another elaboration of the plans provided that the 1
and the 4
Army could perform offensive actions on the tactical field, without moving away from the principle of strategic defensive along the border; the aim was to occupy positions more adequate for the defensive placement in order to mitigate the dangerous threat of the Trento fortress. In 1912, after the completion of the first works for the barrier on the high Valdastico and the creation of permanent fortified areas along the Tagliamento river, in Codroipo, in Latisana, in Pinzano and in San Daniele, the operational plan became more audacious: it provided a forward defensive deployment in the plain. It was still valid the principle that, in case of a war against Austria-Hungary, our 4 Armies (composed of 12 Army Corps, two of which were reserve) would be deployed to defend the route Adamello - Giudicarie Alps - Plateau of the 7 Municipalities - High Valsugana - High Piave – Tagliamento, with bridgeheads on the left side of the river. The operational studies of the Italian General Staff were not for precautionary needs but for needs derived from a precise evaluation of the Austrian unequivocal aggressive attitude. For years the border along Cuneo in the Italian territory had been reinforcing, by creating very equipped bridgeheads on the right bank of the Isonzo river. Along with those important manifestations of concreteness there was such an hostility by General Conrad, Chief of the Austrian General Staff since 1906. For that reason, the Italian operational planning was evolving simultaneously with the strengthening of the Army. The campaign against Turkey for the conquest of Libya carried out inevitable interferences on the organizational work of General Pollio. That campaign was usually considered the cause of the Army unpreparedness when it went to the world conflict. Actually the war in Libya was more costly and bloody than it was expected and it employed huge quantities of vehicles as well as materials, depleting the stocks. That war was also declared “an element that delayed the completion of our military unit”; and it is an undeniable truth. But we cannot exclude that it had a regenerative function because it forced to replenish materials introducing new ones that responded to the needs of a modern war. The above-mentioned war alerted promptly for the use of equipments, munitions and different materials whose quantities were unknown because of the long period of peace. In other words, the war in Libya had negative influence on the preparation but it was also a useful test in the arrangements of equipments and personnel training. On 1
July 1914, during his unceasing activity, General Pollio died: he had been the maximum maker of the radical strengthening of the Army and the promoter of a military organism that had to show a stable structure suitable for reaching high level of efficiency. At the eve of the memorable events, General Pollio was succeeded by General Luigi Cadorna as Chief of General Staff of the Army; his name remembered that of his father in the glorious phases of the Italian Risorgimento. In July, after different situations, ultimatums, declarations of war, the conflict broke out and it spread rapidly involving Countries and Powers throughout the world.
August Italy announced its armed neutrality that revealed its real denounce of the Triple Alliance Treaty. The assault by Austria-Hungary towards Serbia justified the Italian decision because it excluded the existence of the “casus foederis” that had a defensive nature. Ludendorff stated: “the Triple has been stipulated as a defensive alliance and it has all the fragility of its nature”. Soon after the war in Libya, the Italian Army was in the initial phase of reorganization and it has not become yet a power and it has not developed yet through the measures studied by General Pollio.
The new Chief of the General Staff Cadorna, using his energy as well as his brilliance and fervor, began to strengthen the Army; he reached promptly positive results in view of an intervention to war whose possibility had to be considered as an inevitable need, by pushing to adopt measures, and incite concrete actions and by getting the situation under control. The Italian heavy industry has not reached yet a level of potentiality that permitted to respond to the needs of a great war, as it was evident since the beginning. But thanks to huge efforts the Army managed to develop, to have weaponry and equipments that allowed to consider the possibility to modify the current operational plan. A new situation took shape: Austria was engaged in a war where it had to deploy its forces on three fronts (Russian, Serbian and Italian fronts). That was the precondition for abandoning the defensive criterions and adopting the offensive ones. For that reason, the plan for the operations evolved conceptually: not anymore abandonment of the Italian territory to the enemy but passing the Piave and Tagliamento lines as well as offensive action along Isonzo river, from Mount Maggiore to the sea, with the Sava Valley and the Lubiana as strategic objectives. On the other front, the operations were carried out through strategic defensive conceptions even if there were some offensive actions in Cadore and in Carnia; the aim was to occupy the road junction of Dobbiaco cutting off the railway of Val Pusteria and to create a way out to Carinzia. After the attainment of those results, it would be possible a consecutive coordination between all the Army Corps, especially between those in Cadore, in Carnia and the Giulie Alps. The deployment was organized in the following way:
Army: Trentino-Adige sector, from Stelvio to Croda Grande;
Army: Cadore sector, from Croda Grande to Mount Peralba;
Carnia area: (independent Command; then 12
Army Corp at direct dependencies of the Superior Command): from Mount Peralba to Mount Maggiore;
Army: from Mount Maggiore to Prepotto, along the Judrio (Pre-Alps Giulie);
Army (of the Carso): from Prepotto to the sea.
and the 3
Army Corps had the offensive task along the Giulia front that was considered the main front. The 4
Army in Cadore and the troops in Carnia had a secondary offensive task. The 1st Army had a strategic defensive task along the other front. That plan of operations was a plan of high strategic level, typical of the Great Warlords. But in the executive phase, a series of circumstances created obstacles and difficulties in the operational preparations leading to the lack of those prerequisites of the plan. When Italy went to war (decision taken only a month before the operations, through the Treaty of London), Russians, defeated in Galizia, were forced to a dangerous retreat; Serbia, that had an efficient going to war, was in a strange phase of inactivity; the Anglo-French mission to Dardanelli failed completely. In that way there was not the indirect support by the Allies, especially by Serbians, to the Italian offensive at its beginning. Along with this serious problem that had a negative effect on the execution of the operational plan of General Cardorna, there was a more serious problem related to the impossibility in pursuing the strategic surprise on which the Chief of General Staff counted: unbeknownst Italy, the Treaty of London was made public and it announced the passage of Italy from a neutrality state to a belligerent state against Austria, creating insurmountable obstacles that could invalidate the Italian operative conception.