CLOSE

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). 

Click to enlarge

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
gutenberg.org
arrow
literature
10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
gutenberg.org
gutenberg.org

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures
arrow
entertainment
Scarface is Returning to Theaters for Its 35th Anniversary
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures

Pop culture history was forever altered on December 9, 1983, when Scarface arrived in movie theaters across America. A loose remake of Howard Hawks's classic 1932 gangster film, Brian De Palma's F-bomb-laden story of a Cuban immigrant who becomes the king of Miami's drug scene by murdering anyone in his path is still being endlessly dissected, and quoted, today. To celebrate the film's place in cinema history, the Tribeca Film Festival is teaming up with Screenvision Media and Universal Pictures to bring the film back into theaters next month.

Just last month, Scarface screened at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival as part of a 35th anniversary celebration. The film's main cast and crew—including De Palma and stars Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer—were on hand to discuss the making of the film and why it has endured as a contemporary classic. (Yes, that's the same conversation that left the panel momentarily speechless when moderator Jesse Kornbluth asked Pfeiffer how much she weighed during filming.) That post-screening Q&A will be part of the upcoming screenings.

"Scarface is a timeless film that has influenced pop culture in so many ways over the last 35 years. We're thrilled to partner with Universal Pictures and Tribeca Film Festival to bring it back to the big screen in celebration of its anniversary," Darryl Schaffer, executive vice president of operations and exhibitor relations at Screenvision Media, said in a press statement. "The Tribeca Film Festival talk was an important commemoration of the film. We're excited to extend it to the big screen and provide fans a behind-the-scenes insight into what production was like in the 1980s."

Scarface will screen at select theaters nationwide on June 10, June 11, and June 13, 2018. Visit Scarface35.com to find out if Tony Montana and his little friend will be coming back to a cinema near you.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios