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 Fascinating Facts About Schindler’s List

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List brought to the screen a story that had gone untold since the tragic events of the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, used his pull within the party to save the lives of more than 1000 Jewish individuals by recruiting them to work in his Polish factory. Here are some facts about Spielberg’s groundbreaking film on its 25th anniversary.

1. The story was relayed to author Thomas Keneally in a Beverly Hills leather goods shop.

In October 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally had stopped into a leather goods shop off of Rodeo Drive after a book tour stopover from a film festival in Sorrento, Italy, where one of his books was adapted into a movie. When the owner of the shop, Leopold Page, learned that Keneally was a writer, he began telling him “the greatest story of humanity man to man.” That story was how Page, his wife, and thousands of other Jews were saved by a Nazi factory owner named Oskar Schindler during World War II.

Page gave Keneally photocopies of documents related to Schindler, including speeches, firsthand accounts, testimonies, and the actual list of names of the people he saved. It inspired Keneally to write the book Schindler’s Ark, on which the movie is based. Page (whose real name was Poldek Pfefferberg) ended up becoming a consultant on the film.

2. Keneally wasn't the first person Leopold Page told about Oskar Schindler.

The film rights to Page’s story were actually first purchased by MGM for $50,000 in the 1960s after Page had similarly ambushed the wife of film producer Marvin Gosch at his leather shop. Mrs. Gosch told the story to her husband, who agreed to produce a film version, even going so far as hiring Casablanca co-screenwriter Howard Koch to write the script. Koch and Gosch began interviewing Schindler Jews in and around the Los Angeles area, and even Schindler himself, before the project stalled, leaving the story unknown to the public at large.

3. Schindler made more than one list.

Liam Neeson, Agnieszka Krukówna, Krzysztof Luft, Friedrich von Thun, and Marta Bizon in Schindler's List (1993)
Universal Pictures

Seven lists in all were made by Oskar Schindler and his associates during the war, while four are known to still exist. Two are at the Yad Vashem in Israel, one is at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and one privately owned list was unsuccessfully auctioned off via eBay in 2013.

The movie refers to the first two lists created in 1944, otherwise known as “The Lists of Life.” The five subsequent lists were updates to the first two versions, which included the names of more than 1000 Jews who Schindler saved by recruiting them to work in his factory.

4. Steven Spielberg first learned of Schindler in the early 1980s.

Former MCA/Universal president Sid Sheinberg, a father figure to Spielberg, gave the director Keneally’s book when it was first published in 1982, to which Spielberg allegedly replied, “It’ll make a helluva story. Is it true?”

Eventually the studio bought the rights to the book, and when Page met with Spielberg to discuss the story, the director promised the Holocaust survivor that he would make the film adaptation within 10 years. The project languished for over a decade because Spielberg was reluctant to take on such serious subject matter. Spielberg’s hesitation actually stopped Hollywood veteran Billy Wilder from making Schindler’s List his final film. Wilder tried to buy the rights to Keneally’s book, but Spielberg and MCA/Universal scooped them up before he could.

5. Spielberg refused to accept a salary for making the movie.

Though Spielberg is already an extremely wealthy man as a result of the many big-budget movies that have made him one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, he decided that a story as important as Schindler’s List shouldn’t be made with an eye toward financial reward. The director relinquished his salary for the movie and any proceeds he would stand to make in perpetuity, calling any such personal gains “blood money.” Instead, Spielberg used the film’s profits to found the USC Shoah Foundation, which was established in 1994 to honor and remember the survivors of the Holocaust by collecting personal recollections and audio visual interviews.

6. Before Spielberg agreed to make the movie, he tried to get other directors to make it.

Part of Spielberg’s reluctance to make Schindler's List was that he didn’t feel that he was prepared or mature enough to tackle a film about the Holocaust. So he tried to recruit other directors to make the film. He first approached director Roman Polanski, a Holocaust survivor whose own mother was killed in Auschwitz. Polanski declined, but would go on to make his own film about the Holocaust, The Pianist, which earned him a Best Director Oscar in 2003. Spielberg then offered the movie to director Sydney Pollack, who also passed.

The job was then offered to legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who accepted. Scorsese was set to put the film into production when Spielberg had an epiphany on the set of the revisionist Peter Pan story Hook and realized that he was finally prepared to make Schindler’s List. To make up for the change of heart, Spielberg traded Scorsese the rights to a movie he’d been developing that Scorsese would make into his next film: the remake of Cape Fear.

7. The movie was a gamble for Universal, so they made Spielberg a dino-sized deal.

When Spielberg finally decided to make Schindler’s List, it had taken him so long that Sheinberg and Universal balked. The relatively low-budget $23 million three-hour black-and-white Holocaust movie was too much of a risk, so they asked Spielberg to make another project that had been brewing at the studio: Jurassic Park. Make the lucrative summer movie first, they said, and then he could go and make his passion project. Spielberg agreed, and both movies were released in 1993; Jurassic Park in June and Schindler’s List in December.

8. Spielberg didn't want a movie star with Hollywood clout to portray Schindler.

Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson auditioned for the role of Oskar Schindler, and actor Warren Beatty was far enough along in the process that he even made it as far as a script reading. But according to Spielberg, Beatty was dropped because, “Warren would have played it like Oskar Schindler through Warren Beatty.”

For the role, Spielberg cast then relatively unknown Irish actor Liam Neeson, whom the director had seen in a Broadway play called Anna Christie. “Liam was the closest in my experience of what Schindler was like,” Spielberg told The New York Times. “His charm, the way women love him, his strength. He actually looks a little bit like Schindler, the same height, although Schindler was a rotund man,” he said. “If I had made the movie in 1964, I would have cast Gert Frobe, the late German actor. That’s what he looked like.”

Besides having Neeson listen to recordings of Schindler, the director also told him to study the gestures of former Time Warner chairman Steven J. Ross, another of Spielberg’s mentors, and the man to whom he dedicated the film.

9. Spielberg did his own research.

In order to gain a more personal perspective on the film, Spielberg traveled to Poland before principal photography began to interview Holocaust survivors and visit the real-life locations that he planned to portray in the movie. While there, he visited the former Gestapo headquarters on Pomorska Street, Schindler’s actual apartment, and Amon Goeth’s villa.

Eventually the film shot on location for 92 days in Poland by recreating the Płaszów camp in a nearby abandoned rock quarry. The production was also allowed to shoot scenes outside the gates of Auschwitz.

10. The little girl in the red coat was real.

Promotional image for 25th anniversary rerelease of Schindler's List.
Universal Pictures

A symbol of innocence in the movie, the little girl in the red coat who appears during the liquidation of the ghetto in the movie was based on a real person. In the film, the little girl is played by actress Oliwia Dabrowska, who—at the age of three—promised Spielberg that she would not watch the film until she was 18 years old. She allegedly watched the movie when she was 11, breaking her promise, and spent years rejecting the experience. Later, she told the Daily Mail, “I realized I had been part of something I could be proud of. Spielberg was right: I had to grow up to watch the film.”

The actual girl in the red coat was named Roma Ligocka; a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, she was known amongst the Jews living there by her red winter coat. Ligocka, now a painter who lives in Germany, later wrote a biography about surviving the Holocaust called The Girl in the Red Coat.

11. The movie wasn't supposed to be in English.

For a better sense of reality, Spielberg originally wanted to shoot the movie completely in Polish and German using subtitles, but he eventually decided against it because he felt that it would take away from the urgency and importance of the images onscreen. According to Spielberg, “I wanted people to watch the images, not read the subtitles. There’s too much safety in reading. It would have been an excuse to take their eyes off the screen and watch something else.”

12. The studio didn't want the movie to be in black and white.

The only person at MCA/Universal who agreed with Spielberg and director of cinematography Janusz Kaminski’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white was Sheinberg. Everyone else lobbied against the idea, saying that it would stylize the Holocaust. Spielberg and Kaminski chose to shoot the film in a grimy, unstylish fashion and format inspired by German Expressionist and Italian Neorealist films. Also, according to Spielberg, “It’s entirely appropriate because I’ve only experienced the Holocaust through other people’s testimonies and through archival footage which is, of course, all in black and white.”

13. Spielberg's passion project paid off in Oscars.

Schindler’s List was the big winner at the 66th Academy Awards. The film won a total of seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director awards for Spielberg. Neeson and Ralph Fiennes were both nominated for their performances, and the film also received nods for Costume Design, Makeup, and Sound.

14. Schindler's List is technically a student film.

Steven Spielberg gives a speech
Nicholas Hunt, Getty Images

Thirty-three years after dropping out of college, Spielberg finally received a BA in Film and Video Production from his newly minted alma mater, Cal State Long Beach, in 2002. The director re-enrolled in secret, and gained his remaining credits by writing essays and submitting projects under a pseudonym. In order to pass a film course, he submitted Schindler’s List as his student project. Spielberg describes the time gap between leaving school and earning his degree as his “longest post-production schedule.”

15. Spielberg thinks the film may be even more important to watch today.

In honor of the film's 25th anniversary, it's currently back in theaters. But Spielberg believes that the film may be even more important for today's audiences to see. "I think this is maybe the most important time to re-release this film," the director said in a recent interview with Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News. Citing the spike in hate crimes targeting religious minorities since
2016, he said, "Hate's less parenthetical today, it's more a headline."

Additional Sources:
The Making of Schindler’s List: Behind the Scenes of an Epic Film, by Franciszek Palowski

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2015.

The Most-Searched Holiday Movie in Every State, Mapped

iStock.com/chrispecoraro
iStock.com/chrispecoraro

Do you live in a Gremlins state or a Home Alone state? StreamingObserver is here to tell you. The streaming-industry site recently used Rotten Tomatoes and other public data sources to figure out the most popular Christmas movies in each state. Spoiler: It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t quite the Christmas classic you thought it was.

The list takes some liberties with what might be considered a “Christmas” movie. Die Hard (a favorite in Missouri and Wisconsin) made the list, as did Batman Returns (California’s most-searched movie) and Edward Scissorhands (popular in Nevada and Arizona). They aren’t quite the traditional Hallmark holiday fare, but they each include at least some nod to the Christmas season.

Then there’s the more standard Yuletide entertainment, like A Christmas Carol (Tennessee’s favorite) and Frosty the Snowman (South Dakota's pick). Christmas in Connecticut, oddly enough, is Montana’s favorite (unclear whether that’s the 1945 film or the 1992 TV movie), while Connecticut’s favorite is the 1983 Eddie Murphy film Trading Places. The Apartment, The Snowman, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Best Man Holiday also make an appearance. Seven states list Gremlins as their favorite, while six chose Home Alone and three chose Scrooged.

The data is based on Google searches, rather than surveys, so it's possible that the movie at the top of each state's list isn't so much beloved as it is curiosity-inspiring. It's possible that all these people are Googling Gremlins, then deciding not to watch it. But we feel fairly confident saying a lot of people will be watching Die Hard this Christmas season. (Tip: You can't stream it on Netflix right now, but you can rent it on Amazon.)

The 2018 results are fairly different from StreamingObserver's 2016 data, which you can compare here. Do you agree with your state's preferences?

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