“The practice of decimation didn’t die with the Roman Empire. Military commanders throughout history have revived the tradition from time to time as a means of punishment.”
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Luigi Cadorna was an artless and pig-headed military commander.
The Italian army’s chief of staff at the outset of the First World War, the 64-year-old field marshal would go on to become the architect of some of the most futile and disastrous offensives of the entire conflict. In 1915 alone, his ill-conceived assaults on enemy Alpine strongholds cost his nation more than 250,000 lives. But while utterly hopeless as a strategist, administrator and a leader of men, Cadorna did excel in one area: unalloyed ruthlessness.
An inflexible disciplinarian, he callously broke the career of any officer who failed to carry out his absurd orders to the letter. Enlisted men under his command were frequently condemned to firing squads for his own battlefield failures. Nearly six percent of all soldiers in the Italian army were brought up on some charge or another by the aging tyrant and more than 750 men were executed on his watch. In fact, no nation shot more of its own during the First World War than Italy.  It’s even been claimed (although not without some controversy) that after a 1916 mutiny by soldiers of the 141st Catanzaro Infantry Brigade, Cadorna tore a page from history and actually ordered the unit to suffer a good old-fashioned decimation.
Decimation – Murder by Numbers
While the term today is generally used to describe a massive defeat, the Latin word for decimation actually means “the removal of a tenth.”
The term originated in the era of the Roman legions. Army units that mutinied, fled in the face of the enemy or under-performed in combat could be singled out for group punishment in the form of decimation.
Under such a sentence, a body of troops would be divided into sections of 10 men. One soldier from each group would be chosen at random, usually through a lottery. The unlucky infantryman would then to be beaten to death by his comrades. The sentences were carried out immediately regardless of the victim’s rank, reputation or even involvement in the transgression in question. The fatal blows were typically struck with clubs — a practice the Romans called fustuarium.
Incidentally, individual soldiers could also suffer bludgeoning for such crimes as theft, desertion, lying to a superior or even submitting one’s self to sodomy. Interestingly enough, same-sex intercourse was perfectly legal under army regulations of the day, but only for the solider who was the dominant player in the act.
After a sentence of decimation was carried out, the surviving soldiers in the disgraced cohort would be forced to make camp away from the larger army. The reduced unit would have to subsist for several days on raw barley. Such a diet didn’t just taste terrible, but was also very hard on the stomach and intestines.
Case Studies in Cruelty
The historian Titus Livius Patavinus, also known simply as Livy, provides the earliest account of a decimation in the Roman army.
The incident occurred in 5th Century BCE during the young city-state’s conquest of the Italian peninsula. Amid a fierce battle against the Volsci faction in 471 BCE, an army under the command of Appius Claudius Sabinus Inregillensis bolted and fled. Furious over his men’s conduct, the tyrannical consul had the first of those to flee captured and then beheaded. And as a grim reminder to the rest of the army, he then ordered every tenth man remaining to be executed for good measure. 
Despite these examples, even at the height of Rome’s power, this particular form of punishment was far from commonplace. Many considered it controversial. In fact, because decimation exacted such a heavy toll on both manpower and morale, it was only ordered in exceptional cases. In all, only a handful of decimations were ever recorded. Despite this, at least one Roman emperor took the practice a little too far.
For refusing to renounce their faith and to persecute fellow Christians, the so-called Theban Legion of the 3rd century Roman army, suffered decimation on the order of Emperor Maximian. After the bloody sentence was carried out, the unit defied the orders yet again and was condemned once more. In fact, the Roman ruler inflicted the punishment over and over until all 6,600 members of the dissident outfit were dead. The fortress town where the Thebans were stationed was later renamed in honour of the legion’s canonized commander Mauritius and his martyred soldiers. It’s now known as Saint-Maurice, Switzerland.
The practice of decimation didn’t die with the Roman Empire. Military commanders throughout history have revived the tradition from time to time as a means of punishment.
Rokycany in present day Czech Republic was where 90 randomly chosen cavalrymen were put to death in 1642 by Austria’s Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. The punishment was ordered following the alleged cowardice of a 900-man regiment of horse at the disastrous Battle of Leipzig. During the decisive clash, which saw 10,000 soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire butchered by a much smaller Swedish army, members of the disgraced outfit broke and ran precipitating a general route among the German troops. Some accounts say that the condemned were chosen to die by the roll of dice and were then either hanged from trees or decapitated before their comrades’ eyes. Today, a monument in Rokycany commemorates the slaughter.
Like its First World War Italian allies, France is also known to have ordered decimation for regiments that mutinied, fled or refused to fight. In fact, at the time of the war’s outbreak in 1914, the practice was even codified in French military regulations as a legitimate form of punishment. 
For failing to stand and fight in the war’s opening weeks, the French high command ordered every tenth man in a company of the Mixed Algerian Infantry Regiment (Régiment Mixte de Tirailleurs Algériens) to be shot by firing squad. The sentences were all carried out on Dec. 15, 1914.
Another recent example of decimation can be found in the 1918 Finish Civil War. After capturing the city of Varkaus from communist rebels, troops from the nationalist White Guard conducted what is remembered as the Lottery of Huruslahti. During the incident, prisoners were herded onto a frozen lake at which point every officer among them along with every fifth soldier were ordered to step forward. They were then summarily shot. Between 80 and 90 men were murdered.
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Feb 26, 2014)