Plotting Serbia’s Demise

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 192nd installment in the series. 

July 17, 1915: Plotting Serbia’s Demise, Second Battle of the Isonzo 

After switching alliances in the prewar diplomatic chess game, Bulgaria remained neutral when war broke out, playing the two sides off each other to see which could offer more in return for its continued neutrality or active cooperation – just as Greece, Italy, and Romania were doing. But whichever side Bulgaria ended up on, its main goal was always the same: recovering the territory lost in the Second Balkan War, and especially the areas of Macedonia lost to Serbia and Greece. After the disasters of 1913 revenge against Serbia in particular became a national obsession, with Bulgaria’s Tsar Ferdinand declaring in July 1913 that, “The aim of his life was the annihilation of Serbia.” 

The result was another bidding war between the Allies and Central Powers, as both sides made offers and counteroffers promising cash, arms, and above all territory to win Bulgaria’s allegiance. However the Allies were always working at a disadvantage, because they could only persuade Serbia to give up so much in order to placate Bulgaria, while the Central Powers were free to dismember Serbia completely (since that was the whole point of the war). The Allies could offer Bulgaria Turkish territory in Thrace including Adrianople, also lost by Bulgaria during the Second Balkan War, as well as Dobruja, lost to Romania, but these were lower priorities for the Bulgarians than Macedonia; they also knew that the main prize in the east, Constantinople, was already promised to the Russians. 

In fact Austria-Hungary had already offered Serbian territory to Bulgaria during the buildup to war in July 1914, while Germany wooed Sofia with a big loan on easy terms, and Turkey concluded a defensive agreement with Bulgaria the following month, signaling warmer relations. But Bulgaria was exhausted from the Balkan Wars, and its domestic politics remained bitterly divided between pro-Allied and pro-Central Powers factions (despite the prewar moves towards Austria-Hungary, many Bulgarians remained attached to Russia, which had helped win the country’s independence in 1877, and the country’s elites feared German and Austrian economic domination). The Bulgarians agreed to consider limited covert operations, including support for the longstanding guerrilla movement in Serbian Macedonia, but that was it.

A number of developments prompted the Central Powers to redouble their efforts in the first half of 1915. Serbia’s unexpected victories in the early part of the war, Russia’s advance in Galicia, and Italy’s declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, all underlined the Central Powers’ urgent need to find new allies themselves. Meanwhile one crucial strategic fact dominated all other considerations: by allying with Bulgaria and conquering Serbia, the Central Powers would open communications via land with the Ottoman Empire, allowing them to send the beleaguered Turks much-needed weapons, ammunition, food, medicine, and other supplies, not to mention German and Habsburg troops to reinforce the hard-pressed Ottoman armies at Gallipoli, the Caucasus, and Mesopotamia


Click to enlarge

Of course these setbacks served to make the Bulgarians even more leery of commitment to the Central Powers: indeed the stalemate on all fronts meant Bulgaria could afford to take its time and extract maximum concessions, as its potential contribution became more valuable. At the same time, on the other side Britain and France were still unable to force Serbia to cede territory in Macedonia in return for Bosnia (the Serbs were justly skeptical about these promises, in light of the Western Allies’ conflicting promises to Italy and Serbia in the Adriatic) and also feared alienating Romania by asking Bucharest to cede Dobruja. Sir William Robertson, the British chief of the general staff, frankly admitted, “since the war began, diplomacy had seriously failed to assist us with regard to Bulgaria.” 

The situation began to change in June and July 1915, as Italy’s bloody defeat at the First Battle of the Isonzo made it clear Austria-Hungary wasn’t about to collapse, while the situation at Gallipoli stabilized and the momentous Austro-German breakthrough on the Eastern Front made Russia look more vulnerable than ever. Where the Central Powers had looked close to defeat in spring 1915, by that summer the tables had turned. Berlin and Vienna also informed the Bulgarians they were planning an attack on Serbia for sometime in fall 1915 – with the strong hint that the Bulgarians should commit now or risk losing the spoils in Macedonia.

After complex, protracted negotiations with both sides, in a secret meeting with the German diplomat Prince von Hohenlohe-Langenburg on July 17, 1915, Bulgarian Prime Minister Vasil Radovslav tentatively agreed to an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary against Serbia, in return for all of Serbian Macedonia, territory in Greece and Romania if they declared war against Bulgaria, and part of Turkish Thrace (the Turks, desperate to open a route for supplies from their European allies, were willing to make these concessions voluntarily). 

Subsequently, on August 3, 1915 Radovslav dispatched a military emissary, Colonel Peter Ganchev, to Germany to negotiate the final treaty of alliance and a military pact, which were finalized on September 6, 1915 – the same day Bulgaria concluded a separate alliance with Turkey. This military pact committed Bulgaria to join a general offensive against Serbia, alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary, within 35 days of its signing. The outcome was never in doubt: Serbia, faced with overwhelming force on all sides, would be completely annihilated (top, detail from a German postcard celebrating Serbia’s fall; full postcard below). 

Second Battle of the Isonzo 

The day after Bulgaria agreed to join the Central Powers, Italian chief of the general staff Cadorna launched his second major offensive against the Austrians in the Isonzo River Valley to Italy’s northeast. Unsurprisingly, using the same tactics on the same ground produced the same result as the First Battle of the Isonzo – small advances at an astronomical cost in human lives lost. However this time the Italians moved forward a few kilometers and inflicted more casualties than they suffered, so it was counted a “victory.”

The Italian Army’s mobilization continued slowly throughout June and July 1915, increasing its total active numbers from around 900,000 men to 1.2 million men, although there were only enough supplies for about 750,000 of these. This enabled Cadorna to move up 290,000 fresh troops to bolster the strength of the four Italian armies (which numbered around 385,000 men following the First Isonzo) strung out along the nearly 400-mile-long front, twisting in an “S” shape from the Alps in the west to the valley of the Isonzo in the east.

All along the front, Italian troops faced grueling journeys through rough terrain just to get into position, with marches often conducted at night to avoid enemy artillery fire. Of course this presented its own perils, as one Italian soldier, Virgilio Bonamore, wrote in his diary entry on July 5, 1915, which mentioned a chilling order soldiers had to obey even as they plunged to their deaths: 

If God preserves me, I shall never forget this long night-time march at an altitude of 1,800 metres. There is something epic about our cautious approach in the dark, in total silence. Now and then, in the more difficult passes, someone falls off the edge. They fall without making a sound, as we have been ordered. All we hear is this pitiful sound of a body with a rifle hitting the ground.

With the reinforcements in place, the Second Battle of the Isonzo opened at 4 am on July 18, 1915 with a furious artillery bombardment targeting a 20-mile stretch of Austrian defensive positions on the other side of the Isonzo River, followed that afternoon by a charge of 250,000 Italian infantry against 78,000 Habsburg defenders. The barrage succeeded in destroying the Austrian frontline trenches in many places, and at 1 pm infantry from the Italian Third Army under the Duke of Aosta managed to capture enemy positions on the strategic heights at Mount San Michele, on the western edge of the Carso Plateau. However a desperate Austrian counterattack pushed the Italians out of the trenches on July 21, and after changing hands several more times on July 26 the mountaintop remained under enemy control. 

Meanwhile the neighboring Italian Second Army made scant progress in multiple attacks north of Gorizia on Mount Sabotino and surrounding hills, although they did seize control of Mount Batognica at steep cost. Bonamore, occupying a captured enemy trench near the town of Caporetto, described the scene a few days later: 

On the 29th I spent 24 hours in the trench, squatting among the corpses of men from both sides. The stench was unbearable. On top of that we had to endure a ferocious enemy assault, which we have repelled. Many of our men fell, hit in the head as they poked out of the trenches to fire. I haven’t eaten or drunk anything for two days. The stench from the corpses, the cold, the incessant rain, the lack of sleep – which is rendered impossible by the continual alarms – have reduced me to a pitiful state. 

The Second Battle of the Isonzo would continue until August 3, 1915, with scarcely any significant changes in strategic situation. This meager victory cost the Italians 41,800 casualties, versus 46,600 for the Habsburg forces. 

Despite the incredible bloodshed, men on both sides could still appreciate the aesthetics of their environment, although this was tempered by the privations of the elements and war itself. Of course few soldiers actually wanted to be there, and the natural beauty of the landscape was small consolation for their suffering. Michael Maximilian Reiter, an Austrian lieutenant stationed above the Isonzo, wrote in July 1915: 

We are all waiting, waiting. What is it that every soldier at the front is really waiting for? Is it for the Italians to come swarming suddenly across the hillside? No. The thought uppermost in every mind is, when can we return home? At midnight, I do my rounds for the second time: my company is perched awkwardly on the lofty rocks above the valley, and I frequently have to crawl on all fours to reach the furthest outposts. Other times I slide down on the seat of my trousers: every now and again I stop for a rest. Far below stretches the shining blue strip of the Isonzo: above my head, tens of thousands of stars: around me, a great stillness, broken only by the clicking of crickets. The overall peace is only broken from time to time by the bursting of a shell, near or far, bringing me suddenly back from my reveries to the war… Now above the far peak of the mountain there appears a dim glow of light, gradually increasing in size and intensity and lighting up the whole valley: the moon is rising at last… I begin to dream again, to feel the soft summer night all round me, to study the Milky Way with its shining path of tiny stars across the heavens. Pictures of home drift across my consciousness, my family, my dog, my horses… Suddenly a barrage of shots breaks out without warning, wrenching me back to the battlefield. 

British Set Off Giant Mine 

Elsewhere minor skirmishes continued along many portions of the Western Front, producing thousands of casualties on both sides even during relatively quiet periods. However “quiet” was not the word to describe what transpired in the wrecked village of Hooge, southeast of Ypres, on July 19, 1915: frustrated by a German strongpoint built near the ruins of the Hooge chateau (an aristocrat’s manor house), the British blew the whole thing out of existence with the biggest mine used in the war so far.

After five and a half weeks spent digging two tunnels about 60 meters long under no-man’s-land, using pumps to clear the waterlogged clay, the 175th Tunneling Company of the Royal Engineers packed the ends beneath the German lines with 5,000 pounds of ammonal, a high explosive, as well as gunpowder and guncotton. A German shell severed the detonating wire at the last second, but the gap was repaired and the mines detonated at 7 pm on July 19 (below, the mine crater).

William Robinson, an American dispatch rider volunteering with the British Army, described the explosion: 

When the mines were set off we saw a sight such as one observes only once in a lifetime. The earth trembled, a low, growling rumble ensued, then a mighty crash, and the air was filled with smoke, flame, bricks, dust, flying bodies, heads, legs, and arms. Our fellows let out a mighty cheer and charged across the crater formed by the explosion. The Germans seemed stunned by the awful sight they had witnessed, and we took several lines of trenches from them with very little trouble. 

Alexander Johnston, a British supply officer, recalled:

… the explosion was certainly an extraordinary sight, an enormous cloud of debris and smoke went hundreds of feet into the air, and though we ourselves were about 800 yards away the whole ground shook under us. The assaulting company were told to wait for 40 seconds to enable bricks and debris to come down, and they rushed forward. 

Despite this caution, ten of the advancing British soldiers were accidentally killed by falling debris. The explosion left a crater about 120 feet wide and 20 feet deep, with displaced earth forming a lip adding another seven feet above the ground. Ironically, later in the war the crater was used as a sheltered position for dugouts (above). Today the crater has filled with water and the resulting pond is a tourist attraction (below).

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Game of Thrones Fan Theories About How the Series Will End

HBO
HBO

Our faces are longer than Jon Snow’s right now. It’s been nearly a year since the last season of Game of Thrones ended, but season 8—the series's final one—won’t air until next spring. To tide you over until 2019, we’ve collected some of the most plausible as well as the most bonkers fan theories about what could go down in the final episodes. They predict everything from a new contender for the Iron Throne to a new species classification for a major character. On the bright side, we’ll all have plenty of time to debate these before the first episode airs.

1. JON SNOW WILL KILL DAENERYS.

Almost since the series began, fans have been predicting that Jon Snow is the Prince Who Was Promised—a reincarnation of the legendary hero Azor Ahai. But most predictions have overlooked a central piece of the Azor Ahai legend, which may spell doom for Daenerys: Azor Ahai, a lousy metallurgist, had a tough time forging his fabled flaming sword Lightbringer. Then he realized he needed to temper the blade by plunging it into the heart of his wife, Nissa Nissa, to imbue it with her power. (Because in the logic of this legend, killing a powerful woman turns a mediocre man into a hero.) If Jon Snow is Azor Ahai, the theory goes, then Daenerys will be his Nissa Nissa—the one true love he must kill in order to save the realm.

2. THE LANNISTERS’ REPAID DEBTS WILL BE THEIR DOWNFALL.

Lena Headey in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

You know the family creed: A Lannister always pays his debts. In Season 7, Cersei stayed true to her family name when she paid off a large debt to the Iron Bank. Most viewers read this as a play to buy the loyalty of the bank and its mercenary soldiers, but one Machiavellian Redditor has predicted that paying off the debt will have the opposite effect. “While the Lannisters were in debt to the Bank, the Bank had a vested interest in their success,” one Redditor wrote. Now that the debt is paid, the Iron Bank will invest in the side that seems to have the best chance of winning—and right now, that doesn’t look like Cersei's.

3. EURON GREYJOY IS THE FATHER OF CERSEI’S CHILD.

Somehow this seems more disturbing than Jamie being the baby’s incestuous father. PopSugar rolled out this hot take based on some circumstantial evidence. First, Euron and Cersei cooked up a plan to betray Jon and Daenerys without telling Jamie, which “raises the question about what else Cersei was doing with Euron behind Jamie’s back.” Then there’s the fact that Cersei just let Jamie ride north to fight the White Walkers, which doesn’t seem like a risk you’d want your unborn child’s father to take. She has no idea when or if he’ll be back. But on the other hand, she knows exactly where Euron will be. Perhaps she’s keeping an eye on her baby’s true father.

4. DAENERYS WILL DIE BEYOND THE WALL.

Redditor Try_Another_NO reached all the way back to season 2 to substantiate this theory about Daenerys’s demise. While Daenerys is in the House of the Undying, she has a series of possibly prophetic visions. She walks through the throne room in Kings Landing, which is damaged and filled with snow. Before she can touch the Iron Throne, she’s called away by a sound and suddenly finds herself walking beyond the wall. There she meets Khal Drogo who says he has resisted death to wait for her. According to the theory, these were clues about the series’s end: The White Walkers will threaten Kings Landing. Daenerys will turn away from the throne to fight the White Walkers. Death awaits her beyond the wall.

5. CLEGANEBOWL WILL FINALLY HAPPEN.

For years fans have eagerly awaited a fight between Sandor and Gregor Clegane, which has been affectionately dubbed “Cleganebowl.” In the season 7 finale, the Hound hinted that the much-hyped fight is coming when he told his brother, “You know who's coming for you.” The cryptic message also spawned a fan theory about the real origin of the Clegane brothers’ beef. Our only version of the tale comes from noted liar/sleazebag Littlefinger, who claimed Ser Gregor burned his brother’s face over a stolen toy. But Redditor 440k11 thinks the Hound has always had a talent for reading the future in the flames. In fact, the theory goes, the Hound saw his brother’s death foretold in a fire and told him about it. Enraged, young Gregor pushed his brother’s face into the fire he was reading, burning Sandor and cementing their lifelong enmity.

6. VARYS IS ACTUALLY A MERMAN.

The case for this one is watertight. The books make several mentions of merlings living alongside dragons, giants, and White Walkers—mythical creatures we know exist in Essos. Varys, meanwhile, constantly covers his lower body in long robes. What is he hiding? According to Redditor nightflyer, it’s his freaky fish body. In the books, it would explain his cryptic response when Tyrion threatened to have him thrown off a ship: “You might be disappointed by the result.” In the show, it might explain how Varys traveled from Dorne to Daenerys's ship in Mereen seemingly overnight in the middle of season 7. (It wasn’t lazy writing—he swam there!) In general, it might explain why he’s such a slimy weirdo.

7. THE MAESTERS ARE COLLUDING WITH CERSEI TO BEAT DAENERYS.

Finally, a fan theory fit for our political age! According to this theory, the maesters are natural enemies of magic. The strange forces that bring the dead back to life, reveal the future in fire, and allow Arya to wear many faces are beyond the maesters’ powers of rational explanation. But if magic were eliminated, the maesters’ monopoly on knowledge would continue unchallenged. It follows, then, that the maesters would feel comfortable with Cersei’s cruel reign but threatened by Daenerys’s magical dragons. Maybe that explains why a former maester built Cersei a weapon meant to kill dragons. And maybe the maesters will intervene in the conflict more directly in the next season.

8. ARYA WILL KILL CERSEI ... WEARING JAMIE’S FACE.

Maisie Williams in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Predicting that Jamie will kill Cersei is so mainstream. Seeing Jamie kill Cersei for the good of the realm would reprise his role as the Kingslayer (or Queenslayer). It would neatly fulfill the Volanqar prophecy—the prediction a witch made to a young Cersei, that she would be killed by a volanqar (which translates to "younger sibling" in High Valyrean). And it would be so easy. Reasoning that George RR Martin would never do something so obvious, and that Arya’s assassin character arc has to led to a more consequential target than Walder Frey, Redditor greypiano predicts that Arya will be Cersei’s killer. If she first kills Jamie and uses his face to catch Cersei unaware, then the volanqar prophecy will be confirmed (even if it’s on a technicality).

9. VISERION WILL COME BACK TO LIFE.

Here’s a fan theory for moms, from a mom. Redditor Cornholio_the_white wrote that after the season 7 finale, their mom called to say she was sad about Viserion’s death. But she had a prediction: “I think it’s going to remember its mother.” She explained that Daenerys’s love would free Viserion from the Night King’s spell. Cornholio_the_white scoffed. That wasn’t possible. The dragon was dead. But then Mom dropped a compelling counterargument: “Not if the Red Woman brings it back. They’re keeping her around for something.”

10. GENDRY IS THE LEGITIMATE CHILD OF CERSEI AND ROBERT BARATHEAN.

This theory throws another contender for the Iron Throne into the mix. It maintains that Gendry was not Robert Barathean’s bastard son—in fact, he was the only legitimate child of the king. We know that Cersei and Robert had a child—a “black-haired beauty”—who supposedly died shortly after birth. Curiously, Cersei says she never visited her firstborn child in the crypt, even though we know she is a fiercely devoted mother. Perhaps that’s because she knew her son was actually in Fleabottom as a blacksmith’s apprentice. And perhaps it was Cersei all along who was looking out for Gendry, securing his apprenticeship and protecting him from Joffrey’s purge of Robert’s bastards. Gendry, for his part, remembers only that his mother had yellow hair. If that yellow-haired woman was Cersei, Gendry would have the most legitimate claim to the Iron Throne of anyone in Westeros.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. To celebrate his birthday (he turns 73 today), here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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