Luigi Cadorna and the Return of Decimation in World War I

Recently I was doing research on the Roman army’s use of decimation as a form of discipline to punish units who had mutinied or deserted from battle. One of the sources mentioned the claim that Italian Marshall Luigi Cadorna had reintroduced decimation as a form of discipline during World War I.

Cadorna was the Chief of Staff of the Italian Army from mid-1914 until the disastrous defeat of the Italian Army at the Battle of Caporetto in October/November 1917.

There appear to have been two well-documented cases of something like decimation being used by the Italian Army during the time.

The first occurred in January 1916, as historian Vanda Wilcox notes in her paper, Discipline in the Italian army, 1915-1918,

The first well-documented incident of decimation was during the Strafexpedition in May 1916. Several members of the 141st Regiment fled under attack; a 2nd lieutenant, 3 sergeants and 8 men were summarily shot by their commanding officer, whilst a further 74 men were subsequently sent to military tribunals. This summary action was intended to punish a proportion of those involved, selected at random, in order to prevent the recurrence of such events in future. The commanding officer received a special commendation from Cadorna in recognition of his prompt action.

In another incident in July 1917, the 141st and 142nd infantry regiments of the Catanzaro Brigade mutinied. According to Wilcox,

Immediately that morning, 16th July, 28 men were executed. 16 of these had been considered to have been ‘caught in the act of firing shots,’ identified by their still-warm rifle barrels. The other 12 had been selected by lot, as decimation was applied to the 6th company of the 142nd regiment.

Wilcox notes that for whatever reason, Cadorna “claimed that all contemporary armies parcticed decimation,” which was obviously false, and that decimation was used by the Italian army for two distinct purposes,

The first was described as “humanitarian”. In the event that a large number of men should be found guilty of an offence punishable by execution, the death penalty would only be applied to a proportion who were to be drawn by lot from amongst the guilty. The Italian Penal Code of 1859 did in fact lay down that, in a case where a large group were found guilty of a capital offence, only the ringleaders, officers and graduates were to be executed, whilst the others should receive prison terms. Cadorna extended this rule to include not only the aforementioned groups but others chosen at random. This was considered to be a humane application of decimation as it ‘saved’ certain lives. . . . Less commonly, decimation was used to punish an entire unit in the event that the guilty party could not be identified. In this type of decimation, the entire unit would be drawn up and men selected by lot were summarily shot; sometimes every tenth man, sometimes a higher proportion.

It is not for nothing that historian David Stevenson noted that “Luigi Cadorna has earned opprobrium as one of the most callous and incompetent of First World War Commanders” (With Our Backs to the Wall, pp.101).