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. 

Click to enlarge

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.

7 Things You Might Not Know About Mario Lopez

Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley
Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley

While several of the actors featured in the 1990s young-adult series Saved by the Bell have fared well following the show’s end in 1994, Mario Lopez is in a class by himself. The versatile actor-emcee can be seen regularly on Extra, as host of innumerable beauty pageants, and as the author of several best-selling books on fitness. For more on Lopez, check out some of the more compelling facts we’ve rounded up on the multi-talented performer.

1. A WITCH DOCTOR SAVED HIS LIFE.

Born on October 10, 1973, in San Diego, California to parents Mario and Elvia Lopez, young Mario was initially the picture of health. But things quickly took a turn for the worse. In his 2014 autobiography, Just Between Us, Lopez wrote that he began having digestive problems immediately after birth, shrinking to just four pounds. Though doctors administered IV hydration, they told his parents nothing more could be done. Desperate, his father reached out to a witch doctor near Rosarito, Mexico who had cured his spinal ailments years earlier. The healer mixed a drink made of Pedialyte, Carnation evaporated milk, goat’s milk, and other unknown substances. It worked: Lopez kept it down and began growing, so much so that his mother declared him “the fattest baby you had ever seen in your life.”

2. HE STARTED ACTING AT 10.

A highly active kid who got involved in both tap and jazz dancing and amateur wrestling, Lopez was spotted by a talent scout during a dance competition at age 10 and was later cast in a sitcom, a.k.a. Pablo, in 1984. That led to a role in the variety show Kids Incorporated and in the 1988 Sean Penn feature film Colors. In 1989, at the age of 16, he won the role of Albert Clifford “A.C.” Slater in Saved by the Bell. By 1992, Lopez was making public appearances at malls, where female fans would regularly toss their underthings in his direction.

3. HE COULD PROBABLY BEAT YOU UP.

Lopez wrestled as an amateur throughout high school. According to the Chula Vista High School Foundation, Lopez was a state placewinner at 189 pounds in 1990. (On Saved by the Bell, Slater was also a wrestler.) He later complemented his grappling ability with boxing, often sparring professionals like Jimmy Lange and Oscar De La Hoya in bouts for charity. In 2018, Lopez posted on Instagram that he received his blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Gracie Barra Glendale instructor Robert Hill.

4. HE TURNED DOWN PLAYGIRL.

Lopez’s active lifestyle has made for a trim physique, but he’s apparently unwilling to take off more than his shirt. In 2008, Lopez said he was approached to pose for Playgirl but declined. The magazine reportedly offered him $200,000.

5. HE WAS MARRIED FOR TWO WEEKS.

Lopez had a well-publicized marriage to actress Ali Landry, but not for all the right reasons. The two were married in April 2004 and split just two weeks later, with Landry alleging Lopez had not been faithful. Lopez later disclosed he had made a miscalculation during his bachelor party in Mexico, cheating on Landry just days before the ceremony.

6. HE APPEARED ON BROADWAY.

Lopez joined the cast of Broadway’s A Chorus Line in 2008, portraying Zach, the director who coaches the cast of aspiring dancers. (It was his first stage appearance since he participated in a grade school play, where he played a tree.) His run, which lasted five months, was perceived to be part of a rash of casting choices on Broadway revolving around hunky performers to attract audiences. The role was thought to be the start of a resurgence for Lopez, who had previously appeared on Dancing with the Stars and has been a co-host of the pop culture newsmagazine show Extra since 2007.

7. HE BELIEVES HIS DOG SUFFERED FROM POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION.

In 2010, Lopez and then-girlfriend (now wife) Courtney Mazza had their first child, Gia. According to Lopez, his French bulldog, Julio César Chavez Lopez, exhibited signs of depression following the new addition to the household. Lopez also said he used his extensive knowledge of dogs to better inform his voiceover work as a Labrador retriever in 2009’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas and 2010’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation.

The Legend of Cry Baby Lane: The Lost Nickelodeon Movie That Was Too Scary for TV

Nickelodeon, Viacom
Nickelodeon, Viacom

Several years ago, rumors about a lost Nickelodeon movie branded too disturbing for children’s television began popping up around the internet. They all referenced the same plot: A father of conjoined twins was so ashamed of his sons that he hid them away throughout their childhood. (This being a made-for-TV horror movie, naturally one of the twins was evil.)

After one twin got sick the other soon followed, with both boys eventually succumbing to the illness. To keep the town from discovering his secret, the father separated their bodies with a rusty saw and buried the good one at the local cemetery and the evil one at the end of a desolate dirt road called Cry Baby Lane, which also happened to be the title of the rumored film. According to the local undertaker, anyone who ventured down Cry Baby Lane after dark could hear the evil brother crying from beyond the grave.

Cry Baby Lane then jumps to present day (well, present day in 2000), where a group of teens sneaks into the local graveyard in an effort to contact the spirit of the good twin. After holding a seance, they learn that the boys' father had made a mistake and mixed up the bodies of his children—burying the good son at the end of Cry Baby Lane and the evil one in the cemetery. Meaning those ghostly wails were actually the good twin crying out for help. But the teens realized the error too late: The evil twin had already been summoned and quickly began possessing the local townspeople.

MOVIE OR MYTH?

Parents were appalled that such dark content ever made it onto the family-friendly network, or so the story goes, and after airing the film once the Saturday before Halloween in 2000, Nickelodeon promptly scrubbed it from existence. But with no video evidence of it online for years, some people questioned whether Cry Baby Lane had ever really existed in the first place.

“Okay, so this story sounds completely fake, Nick would NEVER air this on TV,” one Kongregate forum poster said in September 2011. “And why would this be made knowing it’s for kids? This story just sounds too fake …”

While the folklore surrounding the film may not be 100 percent factual, Nickelodeon quickly confirmed that the “lost” Halloween movie was very real, and that it did indeed contained all the rumored twisted elements that have made it into a legend.

Before Cry Baby Lane was a blip in Nick’s primetime schedule, it was nearly a $100 million theatrical release. Peter Lauer, who had previously directed episodes of the Nick shows The Secret World of Alex Mack and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, co-wrote the screenplay with KaBlam! co-creator Robert Mittenthal. Cry Baby Lane, which would eventually spawn urban legends of its own, was inspired by a local ghost story Lauer heard growing up in Ohio. “There was a haunted farmhouse, and if you went up there at midnight, you could hear a baby crying and it’d make your high school girlfriend scared,” he told The Daily.

BIG SCARES ON A SMALL BUDGET

Despite Nickelodeon’s well-meaning intentions, parent company Paramount wasn’t keen on the idea of turning the screenplay into a feature film. The script was forgotten for about a year, until Nick got in touch with Lauer about producing Cry Baby Lane—only this time as a $800,000 made-for-TV movie. The director gladly signed on.

Even with the now-meager budget, Cry Baby Lane maintained many of the same elements of a much larger picture. In a bid to generate more publicity around the project, Nickelodeon cast Oscar nominee Frank Langella as the local undertaker (a role Lauer had originally wanted Tom Waits to play). All the biggest set pieces from the screenplay were kept intact, and as a result, the crew had no money left to do any extra filming.

Only two scenes from the movie ended up getting cut—one that alluded to skinny dipping and another that depicted an old man’s head fused onto the body of a baby in a cemetery. The story of a father performing amateur surgery on the corpses of his sons, however, made it into the final film.

The truth of what happened after Cry Baby Lane premiered on October 28, 2000 has been muddied over the years. In most retellings, Nickelodeon received an "unprecedented number" of complaints about the film and responded by sealing it away in its vault and acting like the whole thing never happened. But if that version of events is true, Nick has never acknowledged it.

Even Lauer wasn’t aware of any backlash from parents concerned about the potentially scarring effects of the film until The Daily made him aware of the rumors years later. “All I know is that they aired it once,” he told the paper. “I just assumed they didn’t show it again because they didn’t like it! I did it, I thought it failed, and I moved on.”

But the idea that the movie was pulled from airwaves for being too scary for kids isn’t so far-fetched. Though Cry Baby Lane never shows the conjoined twins being sawed apart on screen, it does pair the already-unsettling story with creepy images of writhing worms, broken glass, and animal skulls. This opening sequence, combined with the spooky, empty-eyed victims of possession that appear later, and multiple scenes where a child gets swallowed by a grave, may have made the film slightly more intense than the average episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?

IMPERFECT TIMING

Cry Baby Lane premiered at a strange time in internet history: Too early for pirated copies to immediately spring up online yet late enough for it to grow into a web-fueled folktale. The fervor surrounding the film peaked in 2011, when a viral Reddit thread about Cry Baby Lane caught the attention of one user claiming to have the so-called “lost” film recorded on VHS. He later uploaded the tape for the world to view and suddenly the lost movie was lost no longer.

News of the unearthed movie made waves across the web, and instead of staying quiet and waiting for the story to die down, Nickelodeon decided to get in on the hype. That Halloween, Nick aired Cry Baby Lane for the first time in over a decade. Regardless of whether the movie had previously been banned or merely forgotten, the network used the mystery surrounding its origins to their PR advantage.

“We tried to freak people out with it,” a Nick employee who worked at The 90s Are All That (now The Splat), the programming block that resurrected Cry Baby Lane (and who wished to remain anonymous) said of the promotional campaign for the event. “They were creepy and a little glitchy. We were like, ‘This never aired because it was too scary and we’re going to air it now.’”

Cry Baby Lane now makes regular appearances on Nickelodeon’s '90s block around Halloween, which likely means Nick hasn’t received enough complaints to warrant locking it back in the vault. And during less spooky times of the year, nostalgic horror fans can find the full movie on YouTube.

The mystery surrounding Cry Baby Lane’s existence may have been solved, but the urban legend of the movie that was “too scary for kids’ TV” persists—even at the network that produced it.

“People who were definitely working at Nickelodeon in 2000, but didn’t necessarily work on [Cry Baby Lane] were like, ‘Yeah I heard about it, I remember it being a thing,'" the Nick employee says. “It’s sort of like its own legend within the company.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER