Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
MILITARY literature often recruits its authors among unlucky leaders: Cadorna wrote his memoirs, and Diaz did not. Ludendorff explained at length how it came about that, in spite of his genius, he was beaten; and Foch kept silent. Again, military experts -- even when they have no personal interests at stake -- are inclined to see only the military elements of problems that essentially are social and human. As I am neither a military leader nor a military expert, but knew Cadorna fairly well and his successor, Diaz, intimately, I believe that my impressions (avoiding the solemn word judgment, which is conventionally left for posterity to pronounce) regarding the direction of the war on the Italian front will at least have the merit of being thoroughly sincere and disinterested.
A member of an old Piedmontese family that had always served the House of Savoy, Count Cadorna was a soldier by breeding, temperament and tradition. His father, in September 1870, had commanded the Italian troops that seized Rome; the son, then eighteen years old and a lieutenant in an artillery regiment, was at his side. A normal career brought Cadorna to the post of Chief of the General Staff in 1914, on the eve of the European conflict. He reorganized the army and prepared it for the great trial. And in May 1915, when it went to war against Austria-Hungary, he became its head under the nominal Supreme Command of the King.
The diplomatic errors that helped make Cadorna's difficult task even more difficult are not unknown to the readers of FOREIGN AFFAIRS.[i] They are all summed in Baron Sonnino's narrow conception that the Italian intervention should consist exclusively of warfare against Austria, with aims which not only had not been brought into harmony with those of Austria's other direct enemies, like the Serbians, but which even in part directly thwarted some of the Slav aspirations. This private war, inserted into a more general one, might be supposed to have made Cadorna's task easier; in reality, it brought him increased difficulties. He felt this himself, for he wrote: "This is not a localized war between Italy and Austria-Hungary; it is a general war, wherein Russia and Serbia share with us the same final objectives on the enemy territory: the three armies must therefore act together at the same time for the common final aims." And he added: "After these three armies have overthrown Austria, Germany, reduced to her own means only, will have to give in at once."
This was clear-sighted. It was not his fault if Russia suffered a terrible reverse precisely on the eve of Italy's entrance into the war. However, he is not quite free of all responsibility on account of the fact that he failed to insist with Sonnino that the Treaty of London, which the latter negotiated as the basis of Italian intervention, should not work against his strategical conception of the conduct of the war. Sonnino was able to include Dalmatia amongst the lands to be annexed by Italy, in the face of Cadorna's advice to the contrary; Cadorna declared that even when it had been conquered Dalmatia would still remain indefensible. But it would have been even more difficult for Sonnino to brush aside misgivings about the advisability of certain clauses in the Treaty if the Commander-in-Chief had previously given him to understand that they might well lessen the strength of Serbia's attacks against Austria, and in particular that they might provide the Vienna Government with a means of making its Slav troops believe that they were fighting against a pretended Italian imperialism.
Military critics have accused Cadorna of having been too slow in the first operations when, just after the declaration of war, Austria was still weak on the Italian front. I do not share their opinion. It may well be that the first leap would have brought him nearer Trieste. But military science, which should be based on experience, is often fettered with abstract formulæ, and I am afraid that in this case the views of the military critics have their origin in one of Bonaparte's maxims: "The worst course in war is the course inspired by too much prudence." Cadorna could not but know that a brilliant initial advance on Trieste itself would not mean anything decisive in the course of the war, and that the war would only be won by the destruction of the Austrian forces, which would change the World War into a mere siege of Germany. The loss of Trieste would not have meant much for Austria, since we already had the command of the sea. The ten battles which Cadorna gave to the Austro-Hungarian army accomplished the aim of destroying the Austrian force. Given the exceptionally difficult theatre of operations of the Italian armies -- that stony Carso where each rough and grottoed hill constituted a natural fortress -- the battles could only be tactical victories; but the supreme objective was reached nevertheless.
The Italian army and people, who persisted in this sanguinary and apparently useless task, must be accorded great honor even if the tradition which prescribes that military history is to be made up of spectacular events has sometimes prevented full justice from being rendered to them. Nor did the Austro-Hungarian army accomplish its part in the terrible duel with any less heroism; and it had a dreadful task -- to hold Italians and Serbians on the one hand, Russians and Rumanians on the other, all bound in a deadly and exhausting siege war. Such is the reputation of the German military machine that there is a tendency to forget the value of the Austro-Hungarian effort. After all, it was only thanks to the continuity of that effort that the German armies were able to develop freely the constantly recurring "manœuvres along interior lines of communication" which were the secret of Germany's triumphs -- until the day when the framework collapsed. The German and Austro-German armies covered themselves with military glory by destroying first the Rumanians, then the Serbians, then the Russians; even, for a moment, in October-November 1917, they could believe that they had also destroyed the Italian armies at the battle of Caporetto. But all those victories had been won because the Austrian armies desperately defended the edges of the gigantic chessboard.
No one would ever have seriously questioned Cadorna's merit in the thankless task of slowly destroying the Austrian forces, had it not been for the battle of Caporetto.
If Caporetto weighs more heavily on Cadorna's name than Charleroi on Joffre's -- all the Allied Commandments underwent similar disasters -- it is because Cadorna chose to account for his defeat by alleging the existence of moral causes beyond his control. Anyone who knew him well knows that his sincerity was unquestionable. But it has been proved beyond doubt that the breach in the long semi-circular Italian front line was due essentially to military errors. Along some of the Alpine passes there were gaps in the Italian defenses, and it was through one of these that the Germans and Austrians passed, after an artillery storm such as had not yet been witnessed on any front.
The moral reasons that Cadorna invoked to explain his failure were, according to his own account, the pacifist propaganda of the socialists on the one hand and, on the other, Pope Benedict's message about "useless carnage," which preceded Caporetto by three months. What is worse for Cadorna's reputation, in his communiqué after the defeat he tried to impute the success of the German invasion to this supposed crisis in the morale of his troops. I heard his communiqué on board an Italian destroyer while I was crossing the Adriatic on October 29, having been summoned by Sonnino to confer with him in Rome; the German and Austrian wireless were hurrying the news of their victory to the world, and, to make it more important still, were giving the words of Cadorna's message. If horror at hearing a general clearing himself by attacking his army did not turn into fear for my country, it was because I had had a chance of knowing the man; I had admired his qualities of endurance, of silent courage, of authority; but I knew also how egocentric he was, how lacking in flexibility and imagination, how in all good faith he might well believe that the mistakes and the responsibility rested with the others -- the damned civilians.
Now there really were moral causes which existed and which -- although in slight proportions -- contributed to the giving way of the Italian front, in about the same degree that moral causes contributed to the French defeats of that same year 1917. But they resulted only minutely from the "defeatist" messages of the Pope or the campaign of certain socialist agitators who threw out the dreadful and misleading challenge: "our dead, their war." The essential and most direct of the moral factors at work was Cadorna himself.
Cadorna, as hard on others as on himself, was really a general of the days of Louis XIV risen again in the twentieth century. Had he been chief of a professional army in which discipline was maintained by dint of hanging and of flogging, one of those armies of Condé or of Eugene of Savoy, he might have done wonders in the elaborate sieges we admire in old war pictures. War, indeed, he conceived of as a gigantic siege operation; filled with a sort of mystical sadism, he held that it was a supreme honor for a regiment to hold out indefinitely in the trenches; the changes and reliefs practised in the English and French armies seemed to him democratic mawkishness. As the war progressed, this trend of his mind changed into brutality; his genuine strength of character became an exaggerated and fateful attitude of silent anger, which he used to keep off the advice of civilians.
People are inclined to believe, alas, that a hard jaw is a sign of genius, and that brutality is a proof of energy. Cadorna, then, became all-powerful with the middle-class Italians. But the millions of men at the front drew their own conclusions; they were paying for their knowledge with their own blood. They were not a professional army, as he believed, but a people in arms, and they saw themselves cut off from the rest of the nation, with no arrangements for regular and periodical leave to see their families, insufficiently fed, and with the slightest fault punished by decimations.[ii] This psychological misunderstanding of the moral needs of a modern army, in which soldiers always remain citizens, was Cadorna's chief mistake. Ready himself to submit to an iron rule, he did not understand that the masses are swayed by other laws.
Overbearing, autocratic, after Caporetto he had the merit of having gone serenely on giving orders for the forming of a new front line long the Piave, where the Italian troops had stayed their retreat and had once more engaged in battle. When Foch came to the new Italian front for a rapid visit he made a long study of the maps and then had a short discussion with Cadorna:
"Il faut envoyer là de l'artillerie" . . .
"Il faut masser là des reserves" . . .
After an oft-repeated C'est fait, Foch rose and said:
"But everything is all right again."
It was, even more so than Cadorna thought; but that was one of those moral miracles which were beyond Cadorna's imagination. His C'est fait had so rapidly materialized because on that left bank of the Piave, now sacred for all Italians, all the units, even the troops that were still disorganized, had said to themselves, as at a sort of mysterious command, that the enemy must not go further on Italian soil; that here they must fight and die.
If at that moment Cadorna understood that the wonderful new unity of national spirit sprang from a free impulse of the mind, whereas all his decimations had been in vain, he must for an instant have doubted his whole conception of life and of men. An autocrat seized with doubts is a wreck.
With the passing of Cadorna there exploded on the Italian front the myth of the " strong silent man " just as it had exploded twelve months earlier with Joffre on the French front. But if the French had the luck of performing this operation a year before the Italians, they had the misfortune to replace Joffre by someone who had been over-advertized as a thunderbolt: Nivelle. The result was the bloody defeat of the Chemin des Dames.
After the trial of Caporetto, after the immediate reëstablishment by the Italians of their line of resistance on the Piave, Cadorna was deposed from his command and honorably relegated to Versailles, whither he was sent as the representative for Italy at the new Inter-Allied Supreme War Council. In the same way, for essentially analogous reasons -- the assertion of infallibility, waste of human lives, discontent among the troops -- Joffre had been removed from real command with the pompous but empty title of " Commander-in-Chief of the French Forces" and, a few weeks later, definitely put aside with the title of Field Marshal.
In Rome, meanwhile, Signor Orlando had succeeded the decrepit Boselli as Prime Minister. Orlando's first task was the choosing of a man to whom the Italian army could be entrusted at a time when the retreat had been checked, when the troops were fighting heroically, but when the Austro-German offensive was going on furiously in the effort to break through the new lines of resistance.
These days saw the dawn of a stupendous revival of national union and faith; the enemy having invaded the Venetian plains, forty million Italians united in one thought: to drive the Germans out of Italy. It was once more the moral unanimity of 1848.
Arriving in Rome from Corfu on the morrow of the Caporetto rout, I succeeded at once in going north, where my three brothers were all in the firing line; I saw, on my way, the usual stream of wretched refugees flying before the enemy as the Belgians had done, as the French had done. Then finally I saw our new front on the Piave. I felt at once that Italy had conquered. Never before had I seen the men so doggedly determined. On all their faces there seemed to be written: "It is our homes we defend."
When, immediately after the Armistice, I went to Constantinople as High Commissioner, I discovered that my feeling had been shared by foreigners who had judged the situation better than it was judged at the time in Berlin and in Vienna and, possibly, in London and Paris. Everything was for sale in Constantinople, and it was easy for me to obtain copies of the old deliberations of the Sublime Porte. I read an ostentatious, self-satisfied report of the Austro-German successes on the Italian Alps, which ended with a request that a Turkish detachment be sent to share in the occupation -- described as imminent and certain -- of Venice. The Austro-Germans imagined, perhaps, that a Turkish flag floating on the Piazza San Marco would help to break the spirit of the Italians.
The blunt answer of the Grand Vizir, Talaat Pasha, was:
"This is our greatest defeat after the Marne; if the Italians have succeeded in making a stand after such a reverse it means that they believe in final victory, and that the Austro-German triumph, great as it may seem, is merely a tactical success."
But even though such was the truth -- as later turned out -- it was natural that the responsible government in Rome should feel the gravity of the situation, with the attacks of the enemy succeeding one another furiously all along the new and still untried Piave front line. "The Italians," declared at that time Conrad, the Austrian Commander-in-Chief, "are like people who hang onto planks for their lives, with the strength of despair; enough to cut off their fingers, and they will all fall off."
It was in this situation that Diaz was chosen to succeed Cadorna.
Diaz was -- the unknown general. He was born in Naples in 1861 and so was at this time between fifty and sixty. An officer in the regular army, he had gone normally from promotion to promotion. In the war in Tripoli he had served as a colonel and had been wounded. He had commanded the XXIIIrd Army Corps since June 1917, and at the head of this Corps had led a successful operation on the Selo, one which, however, was but a part of a more comprehensive action. Such was the man -- a new man, unhampered by precedents, silent, with neither pretensions nor genius. He struck Orlando, when his name was suggested to him, as the very opposite of Cadorna. Orlando submitted Diaz's name to the King, who approved of the choice. The choice was simply the result of a general weariness which Cadorna's violent personality had produced everywhere.
But it was felt immediately that if patient steadiness and resistance were asked of Diaz, some spirit of initiative must be linked up with him. General Badoglio was therefore chosen as Under-Chief. A novel case in Italy, the Neapolitan Diaz was to represent stolid reflection, and the Piedmontese Badoglio imagination and daring.
Although junior to Diaz by ten years, Badoglio, who had begun the war as Lieutenant-Colonel, had in 1917, by a series of rapid promotions on the battlefield, become Lieutenant-General and Commander of an Army Corps, like Diaz himself. His Army Corps, the XXVIIth, had, as it happens, held the very sector through which the Austro-Germans had made their first breach on October 25, 1917, and through which the whole invasion had poured. It is to Orlando's credit that he did not on this account disqualify Badoglio. I had Badoglio with me as military expert during the negotiations over the Treaty of Rapallo in 1920, and in our talks he never admitted that he had committed serious errors; but if he did, as some maintain, it was an advantage when he came to occupy his new post of highest responsibility, for the burning recollections of past risks made him humbler and more prudent and his natural ardor gained in manliness by it. From November 1917 until the final victory a year later, Diaz and Badoglio made up an inseparable binomial: the case presents, for once, a refutal of the legend that only a single mind can mature victories.
Diaz and Badoglio started on their joint command with two great advantages, despite the tremendous losses of Caporetto. I have already shown one: the strong and spontaneous revival of the spirit of resistance amongst the whole Italian people, the very opposite of what had been anticipated in Berlin and in Vienna. The other was a material advantage: the shortness of the Piave line enabled the Italian army to draw itself up in heavy lines and to concentrate its reserves in such a manner that they could be more easily handled.
Diaz had taken over his duties on November 8. Three days later the enemy violently resumed the offensive against the new Piave line and on the Alpine plateau of Asiago. The attack lasted three weeks; along the whole line of the improvised Italian defenses the Austrians sought to force the passage which alone would have given a decisive value to their October victory. Towards the middle of December, after a short lull due to the strain to which the attacking armies had been put, the offensive started once more and lasted until the end of December 1917. Then only did the Austrians at last realize the truth: they would not get through, at least not for the time being.
During those two months, on each day of which Italy might have been either saved or doomed, Diaz, the unknown man of yesterday, appeared as the man of destiny. He knew the Italians were determined to hold out, he knew that there was no stroke of genius to be attempted, that it was solely a question of resisting and of dying; and he succeeded in incarnating this spirit, in creating an infectious atmosphere of fatalistic optimism.
January 1918 brought in four months of snows and storms. They were a precious natural rampart. Diaz, behind this screen, did not lose his time; not only did he, with Badoglio, carry out a technical reorganization of both the army and the defenses, but he managed to keep up amongst the combatants that fever of patriotic passion born of the danger their country had just run. He did what Cadorna in his stubbornness had never condescended to do, and he did it precisely because he did not overrate himself. I mean that he allowed all the free spiritual energies to flow towards the soldiers; he instituted propaganda offices in all the large units to explain to the men the moral aims of the war; he had them told why they should be glad to fight now in order that their sons should know no more wars (which, for Cadorna, would have been sheer blasphemy); Wilson's newly-come message was spread as widely as possible; he allowed newspapers of all opinions to circulate freely in the trenches.
But it was in the organization of propaganda among the enemy that Diaz showed that he understood the moral requisites of the war against Austria in a manner which Sonnino and Cadorna had never done. Diaz accepted the idea (for which in vain I had appealed from Corfu during the two previous years) that there should be organized a propaganda service destined mainly to show the sympathy of Italian democracy for the cause of the nationalities oppressed in Austria and in Hungary, and to use for that service the collaboration of Czech and Jugoslav prisoners and deserters. He encouraged the formation of Czechoslovak legions on our front, and I know for certain that he deplored Sonnino's veto on the formation of analogous Jugoslav legions, a measure which would at least have provoked a deep moral uneasiness among the Slovene and Croat troops who still were fighting so stubbornly against us. All this was obvious, of course, but obvious things are so frequently overlooked; and, indeed, under Cadorna's purely military régime they had been.
On its side, the government in Rome was powerfully aiding Diaz in this new policy. Taking advantage of the revival of enthusiasm for resistance, Finance Minister Nitti floated a loan, called the Victory Loan, which to the astonishment of the world quickly mounted to six milliard lire. Having thus felt how the country freely responded, the government allowed Diaz to provide regimental heads with funds for helping the families of officers and soldiers. Any combatant who was worried about the condition of his family could safely ask his chief for pecuniary help. Every officer and every soldier was given insurance. In case of death, they knew that a sum of money would be paid in to their family at once; if they lived, they knew that on being demobilized they would find a sum of money to help them take up their regular work again. An organization was also founded on behalf of the combatants -- Opera Nazionale per i Combattenti--with a capital of three hundred million lire and possibilities of developing a scheme of wide social scope.
The Italian is, essentially, a homing bird. Those measures -- which Cadorna had never thought of -- did a great deal toward keeping up the morale of the troops, who felt that their homes were being looked after. It is perhaps difficult for foreigners to realize how cruel had been the sufferings of the soldiers' families during the war, especially in southern Italy.
As Diaz's lucky star would have it, after the winter the Austrians decided to attack the Italian army again with all their forces. This was in June 1918. On the other side of the trenches, in Italy, it was better known than in Vienna how much the Caporetto disaster had fortified our troops, but signs of impatience nevertheless were manifested here and there because Diaz did not engage a decisive battle quickly enough. Italy has always been the land where Fabius Maximus was called the cunctator -- the procrastinator -- because, after the defeat of the Romans at Trasimeme, in B. C. 217, he had urged prudence as the secret of final victory over Hannibal. For Diaz as for Fabius, events changed the jest into a title of glory.
The battle of the Piave (June 15-23, 1918) was the greatest of the battles waged by the Austro-Hungarian armies in five years of war. All the forces of the monarchy -- 60 divisions -- found themselves for the first time united in one single aim -- the destruction of the Italian army, about ten divisions less numerous than they. If Italy were once destroyed, thought Berlin and Vienna, the Flanders front would quickly be broken in by the combined efforts of the two Central Empires.
The secret of the tactics adopted by Diaz and Badoglio during the battle of the Piave was never to let their troops fight in advanced positions, but to reserve the counter-attack for the intermediary zones into which the enemy was allowed to advance. New and more efficient artillery tactics did the rest. The Austrians themselves admitted a loss of 200,000 men, 200 guns, 2,000 machine guns. But they lost something even more important in that battle: all hope of ever being able to crush the Italian army.
For Italy the price of this victory of the Piave was 90,000 men. Henceforth, Diaz the cunctator rejected all suggestion of "adventure," as he termed it. He thought, as Foch did, that the decisive crisis of the war would come during the spring of 1919 and he wanted to have his troops fully efficient by that time.
But by autumn events once more got the better of the plans of chief commanders. The imminent collapse of the Balkan front decided an Italian offensive, and this began on October 24. The resistance of the Austrians on the Italian front was still so stubborn that in four days Italian losses amounted to 40,000 men. But it was the resistance of what I, from my post on the Macedonian front, had described in reports as "the crust;" underneath (as I saw from deserters, some of them officers even) the mass of Emperor Karl's army was ripe for disruption. A little later, the Austrian defeat took shape. The Austrians could not withstand the rapid advance of General Caviglia's army on their flanks. On the thirtieth the enemy front on the Grappa gave in. Defeat turned to rout. On November 4 the end had come.
Caviglia, not unreasonably, claimed the merit of this final victory, just as Badoglio had certainly been the main artisan of the Piave victory. If one said that Diaz was the wise coördinator of the efforts and decisions of his lieutenants and cleverly turned favorable circumstances to account, one would have done something to explain what occurred. But it would be too much to say that Diaz gave his name to the victory as a notary rather than as a protagonist, and that as commander of the army he played no other part than that assigned by Thiers to the constitutional king who "règne et ne gouverne pas."
Diaz as an historical problem must be considered from a different angle. He had been the right man in an extremely critical and psychologically involved situation. In that situation certain qualities, in themselves mediocre, or negative, assumed a positive value.
The whole period of the Diaz command proves that, in modern warfare, a great problem of social economics and psychology has superimposed itself on the strategical problem. In November and December 1917 on the Piave, in June 1918, and in October 1918, victory did not smile on one chief gifted with any special genius of his own; victory crowned the collective preparation and -- more still -- the moral unanimity of officers and soldiers, and, behind them, the whole Italian nation.
If there is any merit in having conceived, or willed, or encouraged, this military and moral coördination of the efforts of that great human and social mass which the Italian army represented, it must be ascribed to Diaz -- to his practical mind and to his moral character, free of jealousies and personal concerns. To the great lessons of humility that the European tragedy should have given to our plastic taste for heroism, another should still be added: the twilight of the war gods.
[i] See "Italian Diplomacy During the World War," by Gaetano Salvemini, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1926.
[ii] An inquest presided over by an army general, Caneva, proved that soldiers were shot in decimations who had not even been present on the day when the fault for which they were being punished had been committed, and that volunteers who had come from abroad to join up with the Italian army had been shot.