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Civici Musei di Storia e Arte di Trieste, via Itinerari Grande Guerra 
Civici Musei di Storia e Arte di Trieste, via Itinerari Grande Guerra 

Italians Defeated At Third Isonzo

Civici Musei di Storia e Arte di Trieste, via Itinerari Grande Guerra 
Civici Musei di Storia e Arte di Trieste, via Itinerari Grande Guerra 

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 207th installment in the series. 

October 31-November 4, 1915: Italians Defeated At Third Isonzo 

After suffering defeats or Pyrrhic victories during the Primo Sbalzo and First and Second Battles of the Isonzo, by the fall of 1915 Italian chief of the general staff Luigi Cadorna had finally, belatedly, discovered the key element for successful attacks in trench warfare: overwhelming artillery power to break up the enemy’s barbed wire entanglements and blow their trenches out of existence. This approach had worked for the Central Powers during their offensive on the Eastern Front (now at an end) and it was working for them again in Serbia; with luck he could employ the same tactics against the Austro-Hungarian defenders on the Italian front. 

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However luck was not on Italy’s side – and more importantly, neither was the terrain. Cadorna had reined in his ambitions for the Third Battle of the Isonzo, giving up his goal of capturing Trieste to focus, for the time being, on the town of Gorizia in the foothills of the Julian Alps. However the Italian Second Army under General Frugoni and Third Army under the Duke of Aosta, which were supposed to outflank the Habsburg defenders in Gorizia from the north and south, would face the same geographic obstacles that helped frustrate their previous offensives: they were attacking uphill from the bottom of the Isonzo River valley against low-profile trenches and artillery sheltering out of sight behind the ridgelines – meaning the Italian attackers often couldn’t see the enemy, but the enemy had a clear view of them. 

To blast through the Habsburg defenses, Cadorna assembled a formidable artillery force of around 1,400 guns scraped together from all over Italy, including naval guns raided from the navy and coastal defenses. But rather than concentrating on key points Cadorna spread the guns out along a 50-kilometer front, diminishing the impact of the bombardment, and many of the guns were relatively light 75-mm field artillery pieces, which were ineffective at breaking up barbed wire and demolishing trenches. Furthermore Habsburg general Svetozar Boroević – one of the most brilliant commanders of the First World War, defending his Croatian native land – left his first line of trenches practically empty, concentrating his troops in two new lines of trenches behind, from which they could hurry forward to the first line of trenches as soon as the Italian bombardment halted; he also brought positioned reserves in the rear trenches to mount immediate counter-attacks wherever the Italians succeeded in occupying the first trench. 

To top it all off, with Italian preparations clearly visible from the enemy positions there was no hope of achieving surprise (top, an Italian shelter on the Isonzo) and in the weeks leading up the battle the Habsburg artillery constantly harried Italian troops trying to bring up their own guns, shells and supplies. On October 15, Enzo Valentini described witnessing an Austrian bombardment by 210-millimeter shells in a letter to his mother: 

The roar was deafening. When the shell explodes it raises a huge column of stones, earth and sods, in a dense black cloud of smoke, which as it disappears discloses a large hole and a chaos of upheaved earth and snow blackened by the smoke. The first shot was followed by fourteen others, which have upheaved all the hollow ground around the fort… Then our field batteries hidden behind one of the rocks… opened a very lively fire. The small cannon of the enemy replied… The wind had got up and whistled among the rocks, but the roar and the noise of the explosions overpowered it. The sky was rent; the air trembled, impregnated with the acrid smell of war; the mountain resounded as if in fury, and the stones and splinters of shells reached our huts. Then it all ceased, and the noble austere silence of the everlasting mountain brooded over the convulsed valley. 

Nonetheless Cadorna was sure that with their two-to-one advantage in artillery the Italian armies would prevail – and at first his confidence seemed justified. On October 18, 1915 the Italian guns began a bombardment that lasted for three days, followed by the first infantry attack on October 21. Finding Habsburg defenses unbroken in most places, thousands of attackers were caught in the barbed wire and mowed down by machine guns firing down the slopes, but some Italian units did succeed in capturing enemy trenches on Mount Mrzli, north of Gorizia, with desperate bayonet attacks and hand-to-hand fighting – only to lose them to equally desperate Habsburg counter-attacks later that day. 

The Second Army mounted another big push to capture the summit of Mount Mrzli on October 24, but were forced back twice. Meanwhile to the south the Italians fared no better, as Mount Saint Michele traded hands repeatedly and Habsburg defenders repelled literally dozens of futile attempts by the Third Army near the towns of Podgora and Sabotino, cutting down row after row of attackers struggling up hillsides awash with mud from autumn rains. In other places Austro-Hungarian troops simply rolled barrels full of explosives down the hills, with terrifying effects. 

Finding his flank attacks frustrated, Cadorna decided to shift the focus of the Italian offensive to a frontal assault on the enemy positions defending Gorizia itself, but from October 28-31 Italian troops failed to even reach the Austro-Hungarian trenches on Mount Sabotino. Now, in the final Italian effort of the Third Battle of the Isonzo, Cadorna reverted to a flanking strategy with simultaneous attacks at Mount San Michele to the south and the village of Plava, site of a key crossing over the Isonzo. 

The final phase from October 31 to November 4 was the closest the Italians came to victory in the Third Battle of the Isonzo. On the south Italians almost succeeded in breaking through – at great cost, as always – pushing the Austro-Hungarian forces back from the village of Zagorra and opening the way to the objective of Gorizia. However a Habsburg battalion composed of reliable Austrian troops arrived at the last moment to plug the gap and halt the Italian advance. Meanwhile to the north, on Mount San Michele, it was the same depressing story as in previous weeks. 

By the time the Third Battle of the Isonzo ended on November 4, 1915, the Italians had suffered around 70,000 casualties, including 11,000 dead, compared to 40,000 casualties for the Habsburg forces, with 9,000 dead. But the near-breakthrough in the final days convinced Cadorna that the Austro-Hungarian defenses would collapse if he returned to the attack with fresh troops now arriving from the south. The Fourth Battle of the Isonzo would begin less than a week later, on November 10, 1915. 

Food Shortages Spread Across Europe 

The autumn of 1915 saw the first food riots in several cities across Germany – a sign of how bad things had become in a normally orderly society after a year of war – and in late October the government decreed that there would now be two “meatless days” every week (Tuesdays and Fridays), when shopkeepers were not allowed to sell meat to customers, adding to the previously declared days (Mondays and Thursdays) when they couldn’t sell fats, like butter or lard. The German government had ordered bread rationing in January 1915, and added potato rationing in October. 

Germany was hardly alone: in October 1915 the French government formed a new Ministry of Food Supply, with the right to requisition crops if necessary. Indeed all the belligerents would adopt similar policies as food shortages spread across Europe, resulting from the absence of the male agricultural labor force and the disruption to traditional supply chains caused by military requisition of vehicles and livestock. The Central Powers and Russia also had to contend with the interruption to foreign trade caused by blockades (Britain, France and Italy could still import food from overseas, which meant the food situation never got as bad there). 

While national governments and local authorities tried to fill in the gaps by drafting women, older men and prisoners of war into farm work, many lacked the necessary expertise, and many foreign imports couldn’t be substituted with local production. The situation was even worse for city-dwellers, as peasants unsurprisingly held back food for their own families in times of scarcity – leading to forced requisitions and growing tension between cities and the countryside, not to mention thriving black markets. Last but not least, shortages were compounded by inflation resulting from national governments printing money to pay for armaments, which caused prices to rise even more. 

As early as the autumn of 1914, the anonymous correspondent Piermarini recorded rising prices for food as well as other necessities in the Austrian capital of Vienna: “Milk, potatoes, meat, sugar, etc., are double the usual price; eggs have become a food for the rich, and bread, even of very bad quality, is expensive and scarce… Coal is a luxury… Gas has doubled in price…” It wasn’t just poor families who suffered, he noted: 

Vienna has, at the present moment, scores of families – well-dressed and well-connected – who are starving at home, families which, before the war, used to live up to their full income and generally above it, and which, now the father is unemployed or at the front, are absolutely penniless and too proud to accept anything from public charity. 

Even when there was enough to sustain them, bourgeois Europeans found the whole idea of rationing a humiliating ordeal, as recounted by the German novelist Arnold Zweig in his novel Young Woman of 1914, where he described the plight of middle class women in mid-1915: “By this time bread, meat, potatoes, vegetables, milk, and eggs, were all subject to a detailed system of regulations, which the Germans had to obey or take much trouble to evade. The constant production of food cards stamped the purchaser as the inferior of the seller; it was always with a gasp of relief that women emerged from the shops.” 

Logically enough the belligerents tried to ensure that soldiers serving at the front got enough to eat, increasingly at the expense of civilians, but low-ranking frontline soldiers frequently complained of hunger. Often enough food arrived spoiled or was hoarded by their officers, who also received higher wages, enabling them to supplement their rations by buying extra supplies local peasants. In April 1915 a bricklayer from Franconia noted bitterly in a letter home: 

We only get very little to eat. One doesn’t even get what one deserves. And then there are the idle fellows who are rude to the people and who eat away their things and who get six to seven hundred Marks every month. I am boiling over with rage watching this swindle. It is about high time now to finish it. One gets rich and eats away everything, the other who doesn’t get everything from home is starving or has to pay from the money received from home. 

Another German soldier’s letter home from April 1915 paints a similar picture:

You would not believe how much the men hate those who have just become officers, the sergeant-lieutenants and those who serve as officers. A huge majority of them are still paid their entire salary and on top of that their [monthly] pay of 205 to 250 Mark. Furthermore, they get five Mark each day special ration allowance, whereas the troops are actually going hungry… By all means, the situation is unfair and this outrages everyone. 

Similarly Bernard Pares, a British observer with the Russian Army, recalled a postcard found on a Czech prison of war from the Habsburg Army in May 1915: “Here there is no news, only hunger and shortage of bread. Many of the bakeries are closed. Flour is not to be bought; meat is very dear. Soon there will be a general crisis.” And in March 1915 a French soldier, Robert Pellissier, predicted hunger would force the end of the war: “I don’t believe this war will end by great victories for either side. Starvation of civilians and lack of funds and general disgust at the whole business will bring peace.” 

At first people shrugged off the inconvenience and monotonous diets enforced by rationing as the inevitable result of war, but as time went on and monotony turned to hunger, many began to blame the incompetence of their own governments, rather than external circumstances. Ihsan Hasan al-Turjman, a young Arab living in Jerusalem, wrote in his diary on December 17, 1915: 

I haven’t seen darker days in my life. Flour and bread have basically disappeared since last Saturday. Many people have not eaten bread for days now. As I was going to the Commissariat this morning, I saw a throng of men, women, and boys fighting each other to buy flour near Damascus Gate… I became very depressed and said to myself, “Pity the poor” – and then I said, “No, pity all of us, for we are all poor nowadays.”... I never thought that we would lack flour in our country, when we are the source of wheat. And I never in my life imagined that we would run out of flour at home. Who is responsible but this wretched government? 

In Constantinople Lewis Einstein, an American diplomat, noted similar events in a diary entry in September 1915: 

The scarcity of foodstuffs is daily making itself more felt. There is hardly any bread, and there are always fights over the distribution at the bakeries. Only the other day a woman died from the effects of being roughly handled by the police, who are present when it is doled out. There is like scarcity with other staples… Production and transportation have practically ceased…

Indeed many observers predicted that the shortages would lead to social and political upheaval in the not-too-distant future, and in the eyes of nervous authorities every food riot seemed to hold the seeds of revolution. Some of the worst outbursts occurred in Russia, long an exporter of grain but now subject to the same disruptions of production and transportation afflicting the other belligerents, and also cut off from imports by the closing of the Turkish straits. 

Disturbances prompted by high prices and shortages had already broken out in May 1915 in the industrial town of Orekhovo, followed by a full-fledged food riot in Moscow in July and another food riot in Kolpino, a suburb of Petrograd, in August. These incidents often resulted in confrontations with the police, who were widely distrusted and accused of corrupt complicity in merchants’ speculation, hoarding, and price gouging.

However the biggest incident yet occurred on October 1, 1915, when a food riot erupted in Bogorodsk, a textile-manufacturing town outside of Moscow. The disturbance began when several dozen female factory workers found out that there was no more sugar for sale at the local marketplace. The women accused the merchants of hoarding and price gouging and became unruly, prompting the police to try to disperse the crowd; however this only made the situation worse, as the women enlisted help from other townspeople, resulting in an angry crowd of thousands gathering in the town square. 

The mob now went on the rampage, looting shops and destroying property. This was followed by several days of unrest that spread to three neighboring towns, until a paramilitary Cossack unit came to quell the disorder by force, killing two people in the process. However tens of thousands of factory workers went on strike to protest the rising cost of living, finally forcing the factory owners to agree to a 20% percent raise.

But the underlying causes of the disorder were only going to grow worse, as the government’s war spending stoked inflation and wages failed to keep pace. By the end of the second year of the war prices in Moscow and Petrograd had more than doubled from their pre-war levels, and shortages of staples like bread, flour, eggs, sugar and potatoes, as well other necessities like cloth for clothing, became commonplace. Another food riot would follow in Perm province in December 1915.  That same month a police report warned of growing anger in the streets of the capital Petrograd: “All these women, freezing in twenty-degree weather for hours on end in order to receive two pounds of sugar or two to three pounds of flour, understandably look for the person responsible for their woes.” 

Foreign observers noted the growing tension, exacerbated by the Central Powers’ relentless advance from May to September 1915. In August the anonymous British author of The Russian Diary of an Englishman, Petrograd, 1915-1917 (believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Stopford) noted: “The fear is the people might rise and make peace to stop the German advance, feeling that the Romanovs have had their chance and been found wanting… Things are not at all quiet here. Munition-workers are on strike and even some passers-by shot. My poor little cabman was shot by mistake as he was going down the street.”

In the same vein the British military observer Alfred Knox wrote following the Tsar’s replacement of Grand Duke Nikolai as commander in chief: 

The conversations that took place, even in official circles and in the presence of a foreigner, showed the extent to which mistrust in the Government and the autocracy had gone… More than one officer assured me in September, 1915, that there would certainly be a revolution if the enemy approached Petrograd. They said that such a movement at such a time would be deplorable, but that the Government was bringing it upon itself… On September 19th I reported: “If there has ever been a government that richly deserved a revolution, it is the present one in Russia.” 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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entertainment
10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
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Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens' maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

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Pop Culture
"Weird Al" Yankovic Is Getting the Funko Treatment
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Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

Though the New York Toy Fair—the largest trade show for playthings in the western hemisphere—won't officially kick off until Saturday, February 17, kids and kids-at-heart are already finding much to get excited about as the world's biggest toy companies ready to unleash their newest wares on the world. One item that has gotten us—and fans of fine parody songs everywhere—excited is "Weird Al" Yankovic's induction into the Funko Pop! family. The accordion-loving songwriter behind hits like "Eat It," "White & Nerdy," "Amish Paradise," and "Smells Like Nirvana" shared the news via Twitter, and included what we can only hope is a final rendering of his miniaturized, blockheaded vinyl likeness:

In late December, Funko announced that a Weird Al toy would be coming in 2018 as part of the beloved brand's Pop Rocks series. Though we know he'll be joined by Alice Cooper, Kurt Cobain, Elton John, and the members of Mötley Crüe, there's no word yet on exactly when you’ll be able to get your hands on Pop! Al. But knowing that he's coming is enough … for now.

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