Austrians Launch “Punishment Expedition” Against Italy

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 235th installment in the series.

May 15, 1916: Austrians Launch “Punishment Expedition” Against Italy 

Ever since Italy’s “treacherous” declaration of war against Austria-Hungary in May 1915, Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf had burned with desire for revenge against the wayward member of the Triple Alliance – an ambition shared to varying degrees by Emperor Franz Josef and other members of the empire’s conservative aristocratic elite. 

However Conrad’s hopes for vengeance had to be put on the back burner for the better part of a year due to far more pressing issues: in 1915 Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally Germany gave top priority to their joint spring offensive against Russia, followed in the fall by the joint campaign to crush Serbia, opening a line of communication with the embattled Ottoman Empire via Bulgaria. Meanwhile Habsburg forces, well entrenched but outnumbered, were forced to maintain a defensive posture on the Italian front in the face of repeated offensives along the Isonzo River, including the First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Battles of the Isonzo.

The situation looked considerably more favorable by the spring of 1916, as the Central Powers completed the conquest of Serbia and the defeat of Russia’s offensive at Lake Naroch in March 1916 convinced Conrad – like his German counterparts – that Russia’s offensive capability was largely exhausted (this proved badly mistaken). 

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Perhaps most importantly, Conrad was angered by the German offensive at Verdun, launched by German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn amid complete secrecy, leaving Germany’s main ally in the dark about his plans. Conrad had originally hoped to have German support for his planned “Strafexpedition” or “Punishment Expedition” against Italy, but Falkhenhayn refused, and Conrad – furious at Falkenhayn’s failure to consult him about Verdun – decided to go ahead with an attack using only Habsburg troops. 

Fleeting Success 

The “Trentino Offensive,” also called the “Battle of Asiago” and “The Battle of the Plateaux” because of the battlefield’s geography, enjoyed unusual success in its opening days thanks to the element of surprise, as it fell on a previously quiet sector, and Conrad’s own thorough planning (a talent mostly overshadowed by Conrad’s German colleagues, who dominated in other theatres). However it fell far short of Conrad’s goal of a breakthrough from the central Alps down into the plains of northern Italy, cutting off the main body of the Italian armies further east. 

To carry out the offensive Conrad assembled a very large force of 18 divisions, many of them drawn from the Eastern Front and Serbia, to buttress the Austro-Hungarian Third and Eleventh Armies recently redeployed from the Balkans, now stretched across the mountain ridges and foothills of the central Italian front; this gave the Habsburgs a local manpower advantage of four-to-one in infantry. Conrad also scraped together 2,000 artillery pieces to blast through the Italian lines, compared to just 850 on the Italian side. 

On May 15, 1916, the two Habsburg armies unleashed a furious artillery bombardment that set fire to pine forests and meadows across the Trentino, then advanced against the outnumbered Italian First Army along a 40-mile front southeast of Trent itself. The first three days saw substantial progress by the standards of the First World: from May 16-18, the Austrians captured Italian trenches at Soglio d’Aspio (below) and took possession of the key mountain peaks of Zugna Torta, Monte Maggio, and Cimi di Campulozzo. 

By May 19, however, the initial Austrian offensive was grinding to a halt, giving the overtaxed Italians an important respite that allowed them to build and strengthen new defenses. Meanwhile Italian chief of the general staff Luigi Cadorna frantically called up more reserves and formed the new Fifth Army near Vicenza beginning May 21; in the weeks to come the new army would help to stem the Austrian tide. 

In the short term the Italian First Army faced renewed Austrian attacks by itself, and on May 21 the Austrian Third Army advanced again, capturing Monte Cost’alta and the Armenterra Ridge. The on May 23 the Italians fell back between Astico and Brenta, followed by Monte Cimone and Bettale on May 25. On May 26 the Austrian Third Army captured Mount Kempel and the Habsburgs shifted their main attack to the Asiago Plateau, which was abandoned by the Italians on by May 29; the Austrians occupied Asiago itself on May 31 (the town was largely destroyed during the war, below).

This proved to be the end of the Habsburg Strafexpedition. After attacking along a front from Posina to Astico on June 1-2, the Austrians were defeated at Civo on June 4, followed by two more defeats south and west of Asiago on June 7. At this point external events intervened, with the opening of the Russian Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front, forcing Conrad to withdraw two divisions from the Italian Front and end the offensive. The price of punishing Italy in the Trentino Offensive from May 15-June 4 numbered 100,000 Habsburg casualties, including 15,000 dead, while Italy sustained 140,000 casualties, including 12,000 dead. 

Both sides now settled into another period of stasis, but even these were destructive in the First World War, requiring constant streams of supplies and fresh troops to the front – a remarkable feat considering the primitive, precipitous Alpine roads.  Julius Price, a British war correspondent and artist, described the epic efforts required to supply Italian armies in the foothills of the Alps:

… one passed what was practically an endless convoy of munition trains, motor-lorries, picturesque carts from every corner apparently of the peninsula, and long strings of pack horses and mules. In and out of this imposing column and up the steepest parts of the road dispatch riders on motor bicycles dashed along with reckless speed and marvellous dexterity. 

On a similar note Will Irwin, an American correspondent, recalled the engineering efforts and sheer brute force employed on the Italian side:

At one point a gang of soldier labourers dug a new road with pick and crowbar and blasting powder. At another a gang cleared… the way through an old road that had been smothered in an avalanche. Once… I saw along a white mountain-side a long string of men… When I put the glasses on them, I found that they were dragging a gun, mounted on sledges. Up they went, making almost imperceptible progress, across a slope on which a man could scarcely stand without the help of steps. Everywhere were trains of mules packed with explosives, with shells, with food, with clothing… lurching along the edges of the precipices.

See the previous installment or all entries.

15 Facts About Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure on Its 30th Anniversary

MGM
MGM

In 1989, a couple of slackers from San Dimas, California hopped inside a time-traveling phone booth and gathered a gaggle of key figures from the past so they wouldn’t fail their high school history class. In 1991, they were at it again. Now, 30 years after Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter first cemented their place in sci-fi history as the lovable duo, the long-awaited threequel—Bill & Ted Face the Music—has been officially confirmed. Here are 15 things you might not know about the most excellent original film.

1. Bill and Ted were born in an improv class.

The idea for the characters of Bill and Ted came about in 1983, when UCLA classmates Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson formed a student improv workshop with a few of their peers. “One day, we decided to do a couple of guys who knew nothing about history, talking about history,” Solomon recalled to Cinemafantastique in a 1991 interview. “The initial improv was them studying history, while Ted’s father kept coming up to ask them to turn their music down.” (Solomon played Ted, Matheson was Bill.)

2. Originally, it was Bill & Ted & Bob.

When the skit originated, there was a third character, Bob. But “Bob” wasn’t as into it as Solomon and Matheson, so the trio became a duo.

3. Bill wanted to be Ted and Ted wanted to be Bill.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Keanu Reeves playing Ted Logan, or another actor besides Alex Winter in the role of Bill S. Preston, Esq., but each actor actually auditioned for the opposite role. But when Solomon and Matheson saw their audition tapes, they thought the opposite would work better. In an online chat with Moviefone, Reeves claimed that he didn’t even know their roles had been switched until after he had been cast. “I got a call saying that I got the part,” Reeves recalled. “So I went to the wardrobe fitting… assuming I was playing Bill, and I get there and Alex Winter, who eventually played Bill, went to the wardrobe fitting thinking he was playing Ted. Then we were informed that that wasn't the case.”

4. Pauly Shore also wanted to be Ted.


Getty Images

Pauly Shore was among the hundreds of actors who auditioned for the role of Ted. In 1991, Shore hosted an MTV special, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Premiere Party, in which Shore corners Reeves in a back room to talk about his failed audition. Lucky for America, Shore did go on to find fame apart from Bill & Ted, and bring the phrase, “Hey, Bu-ddy!” into the popular lexicon.

5. No, Bio-Dome is not Bill & Ted's threequel.

Speaking of Pauly Shore ... For years, rumors circulated that the script for 1996’s Bio-Dome—starring Shore and Stephen Baldwin—was actually written as the third film in the Bill & Ted franchise. In 2011, Winter laid this rumor to rest when he told /Film that the story is “total urban legend as far as I know. No one involved in that movie had anything to do with Bill & Ted. So unless they were just going to try and reboot the franchise with that concept and different actors, I can’t see a connection.”

6. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter weren't quite nerdy enough.

The casting of Reeves and Winter posed a problem for the script. “Bill and Ted were conceived in our minds as these 14-year-old skinny guys, with low-rider bellbottoms and heavy metal T-shirts,” Solomon told Cinefantastique. “We actually had a scene that was even shot, with Bill and Ted walking past a group of popular kids who hate them. But once you cast Alex and Keanu, who look like pretty cool guys, that was hard to believe.”

7. George Carlin was a happy accident.


Getty Images

In a 2013 Reddit AMA, Alex Winter called the casting of George Carlin (as Rufus, Bill and Ted’s mentor) “a very happy accident. They were going after serious people first. Like Sean Connery. And someone had the idea, way after we started shooting, of George. That whole movie was a happy accident. No one thought it would ever see the light of day.”

8. The time machine was originally a van.

In Solomon and Matheson’s original script, it was a 1969 Chevy van that served as Bill and Ted’s time machine. But in the course of rewriting the script for Warner Bros., who showed early interest in producing the project, there was concern that a motor vehicle as time machine would ring too closely as a rip-off of Back to the Future, which arrived in theaters in 1985. It was director Stephen Herek who suggested a phone booth, as he thought it could lend itself to something akin to a roller coaster in the visuals. (The phone booth’s similarity to Doctor Who’s TARDIS was apparently not a big concern to the studio.)

9. Some Nintendo lover has that phone booth.

As part of a promotion for 1991’s Bill & Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure, Nintendo Power magazine gave away Bill & Ted’s phone booth as a contest prize. The lucky winner was one Kenneth Grayson, who Reddit tracked down for an AMA in 2011. Grayson spent much of the chat answering questions about whether or not any X-rated activities had ever taken place in the phone booth.

10. The script was written in four days. By hand.

In 1984, Solomon and Matheson wrote the script over the course of just four days. They wrote it by hand, on note paper, during a series of meetings at a couple of local coffee shops. The 2005 box set, Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection, features some of their handwritten notes.

11. Sci-fi wasn't part of the plan.

Keanu Reeves, Dan Shor, and Alex Winter in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
MGM

Though Matheson is the son of legendary sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend, he didn’t intend for Bill & Ted to be a science-fiction movie. “I try to consciously fight it, out of a desire to break away, but maybe I have a predilection toward that because of my dad,” Matheson told Starlog Magazine of the inevitable fantasy elements that emerged. “He’s a great writer and craftsman, and always has suggestions.” In fact, it was the elder Matheson’s idea that the time travel story be its own movie. “We were going to write a sketch film, with this as one of the skits, but my dad said, ‘That sounds like a whole movie,’” Matheson recalled, “And he was right!”

12. Bill and Ted almost traveled straight to television.

Shortly after principal photography on the film was completed in 1987, the film’s financiers, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, went bankrupt. A straight-to-cable release was the most likely path for the time-traveling comedy until Orion Pictures and Nelson Entertainment bought the rights in 1988 for a 1989 release. Because of the delay to theaters, references to the year—which had been filmed as “1987”—had to be dubbed for 1988, resulting in a few scenes where the actors’ lips don’t quite match the sound.

13. Their journeys continued in a variety of media.

In addition to the 1991 sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the Bill & Ted franchise includes 1990’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, an animated series for which Reeves, Winter, and Carlin provided the voices. It lasted for one season. The title was revived as a live-action series in 1992, which included none of the original cast and ran for just seven episodes. In 1991, Marvel Comics launched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book, written by Evan Dorkin.

14. Back in the late 1980s, you could eat Bill and Ted.

As a tie-in to the animated series, you could—for a short while—actually start your morning with a bowl of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal, which was touted as “A Most Awesome Breakfast Adventure.”

15. Bill and Ted will ride again.

Over the past several years there has been a lot of buzz about a third Bill & Ted movie coming to theaters. In 2011, Winter tweeted that the script had been completed and that he was getting ready to read it. When asked about the possibility of a threequel in 2013, Reeves told the Today Show, “I'm open to the idea of that. I think it’s pretty surreal, playing Bill and Ted at 50. But we have a good story in that. You can see the life and joy in those characters, and I think the world can always use some life and joy.” Several references to the possible project have been made since then, and it's now been confirmed that the third film, Bill and Ted Face the Music, is currently in pre-production.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, via a report from the Cannes Film Festival, Matheson and Solomon co-wrote the script and Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) is attached to direct. Reeves and Winter will, of course, be reprising their roles, which "will see the duo long past their days as time-traveling teenagers and now weighed down by middle age and the responsibilities of family. They’ve written thousands of tunes, but they have yet to write a good one, much less the greatest song ever written." Excellent!

6 Times There Were Ties at the Oscars

getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)
getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)

Only six ties have ever occurred during the Academy Awards's more than 90-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members vote for nominees in their corresponding categories; here are the six times they have come to a split decision.

1. Best Actor // 1932

Back in 1932, at the fifth annual Oscars ceremony, the voting rules were different than they are today. If a nominee received an achievement that came within three votes of the winner, then that achievement (or person) would also receive an award. Actor Fredric March had one more vote than competitor Wallace Beery, but because the votes were so close, the Academy honored both of them. (They beat the category’s only other nominee, Alfred Lunt.) March won for his performance in horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Beery won for The Champ (writer Frances Marion won Best Screenplay for the film), which was remade in 1979 with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Both Beery and March were previous nominees: Beery was nominated for The Big House and March for The Royal Family of Broadway. March won another Oscar in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Best Picture winner. Fun fact: March was the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror film.

2. Best Documentary Short Subject // 1950

By 1950, the above rule had been changed, but there was still a tie at that year's Oscars. A Chance to Live, an 18-minute movie directed by James L. Shute, tied with animated film So Much for So Little. Shute’s film was a part of Time Inc.’s "The March of Time" newsreel series and chronicles Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing putting together a Boys’ Home in Italy. Directed by Bugs Bunny’s Chuck Jones, So Much for So Little was a 10-minute animated film about America’s troubling healthcare situation. The films were up against two other movies: a French film named 1848—about the French Revolution of 1848—and a Canadian film entitled The Rising Tide.

3. Best Actress // 1969

Probably the best-known Oscars tie, this was the second and last time an acting award was split. When presenter Ingrid Bergman opened up the envelope, she discovered a tie between newcomer Barbra Streisand and two-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn—both received 3030 votes. Streisand, who was 26 years old, tied with the 61-year-old The Lion in Winter star, who had already been nominated 10 times in her lengthy career, and won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn was not in attendance, so all eyes fell on Funny Girl winner Streisand, who wore a revealing, sequined bell-bottomed-pantsuit and gave an inspired speech. “Hello, gorgeous,” she famously said to the statuette, echoing her first line in Funny Girl.

A few years earlier, Babs had received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical Funny Girl, but didn’t win. At this point in her career, she was a Grammy-winning singer, but Funny Girl was her movie debut (and what a debut it was). In 1974, Streisand was nominated again for The Way We Were, and won again in 1977 for her and Paul Williams’s song “Evergreen,” from A Star is Born. Four-time Oscar winner Hepburn won her final Oscar in 1982 for On Golden Pond.

4. Best Documentary Feature // 1987

The March 30, 1987 telecast made history with yet another documentary tie, this time for Documentary Feature. Oprah presented the awards to Brigitte Berman’s film about clarinetist Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, and to Down and Out in America, a film about widespread American poverty in the ‘80s. Former Oscar winner Lee Grant (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for Shampoo) directed Down and Out and won the award for producers Joseph Feury and Milton Justice. “This is for the people who are still down and out in America,” Grant said in her acceptance speech.

5. Best Short Film (Live Action) // 1995

More than 20 years ago—the same year Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump—the Short Film (Live Action) category saw a tie between two disparate films: the 23-minute British comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and the LGBTQ youth film Trevor. Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wrote and directed the former, which stars current Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant as Kafka. The BBC Scotland film envisions Kafka stumbling through writing The Metamorphosis.

Trevor is a dramatic film about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide. Written by James Lecesne and directed by Peggy Rajski, the film inspired the creation of The Trevor Project to help gay youths in crisis. “We made our film for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider,” Rajski said in her acceptance speech, which came after Capaldi's. “It celebrates all those who make it through difficult times and mourns those who didn’t.” It was yet another short film ahead of its time.

6. Best Sound Editing // 2013

The latest Oscar tie happened in 2013, when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall beat Argo, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi in sound editing. Mark Wahlberg and his animated co-star Ted presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty’s Paul N.J. Ottosson and Skyfall’s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. “No B.S., we have a tie,” Wahlberg told the crowd, assuring them he wasn’t kidding. Ottosson was announced first and gave his speech before Hallberg and Baker Landers found out that they were the other victors.

It wasn’t any of the winners' first trip to the rodeo: Ottosson won two in 2010 for his previous collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Sound Mixing); Hallberg previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart in 1996, and in 2008 both Hallberg and Baker Landers won Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum.

Ottosson told The Hollywood Reporter he possibly predicted his win: “Just before our category came up another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘What if there’s a tie, what would they do?’ and then we got a tie,” Ottosson said. Hallberg also commented to the Reporter on his win. “Any time that you get involved in some kind of history making, that would be good.”

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