Italian Victory At Sixth Isonzo

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 246th installment in the series. 

August 6-17, 1916: Italian Victory At Sixth Isonzo 

With the failure of the Austrian “Punishment Expedition” against Italy in June 1916, when the Russian Brusilov Offensive forced Austria-Hungary’s chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf to withdraw troops to shore up the Eastern Front, the initiative returned to the Italians, and chief of the general staff Luigi Cadorna began preparing yet another offensive in the Isonzo River Valley. The Italians had already suffered multiple defeats or Pyrrhic victories here in the first five battles of the Isonzo, but this time would be different. In fact the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo, from August 6-17, 1916, would prove Italy’s greatest victory until the decisive battle of Vittorio Veneto at the end of the war. 

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In the new plan drawn up by Cadorna with the Duke of Aosta, the commander of the Italian Third Army, the Italian effort would be concentrated on a relatively narrow front compared to previous assaults, a stretch of the Isonzo River Valley less than ten miles long between the hill of Podgora (also called Mount Calvario) to the north and Mount San Michele to the south. They also reined in their ambitions considerably, giving up the idea of a decisive breakthrough towards Trieste in favor of a limited campaign focused on the town of Gorizia. In return for lowering their sights somewhat, Cadorna and Aosta were able to concentrate more artillery firepower and infantry divisions, totaling 200,000 troops, against a much smaller number of Habsburg defenders. Best of all, the Habsburg commanders were complacent following Italy’s close call in the Punishment Expedition, never imagining their foes would be able to mount another offensive so quickly.

The intensity of the Italian preparatory bombardment early on the morning of August 6 was unprecedented in proportion to the length of front being shelled, and Italian gunners delivered some of their most accurate shooting to date, thanks to increasingly detailed reconnaissance by airborne artillery spotters. The war correspondent Julius Price recorded his impressions two days later: 

From Monte San Gabriele to Monte San Michele, a distance of, roughly, nine miles, was one continuous line of bursting shells of every caliber… The whole country appeared to be in a state of irruption, and columns of smoke of various colours and fantastic shapes were to be seen rising everywhere like embryo volcanoes… Seen through the telescope, the desolation of the countryside was revealed in all its horrors. At first glance it was a rich and smiling landscape bathed in the glorious sunshine of an Italian summer morning, but one soon discovered that the white houses of the villages were now but heaps of ruins. There was no indication of life in them anywhere – the God of war reigned supreme. 

After a morning and afternoon of unrelenting shelling, at 4 pm the first wave of Italian troops poured out of their hillside shelters and swamped the outnumbered defenders, beginning at Mount Sabotino northwest of Gorizia, where the Italians had secretly dug shallow tunnels and concealed trenches (saps) more than halfway across no-man’s-land, allowing them to charge the surprised enemy from close range. The same tactics also yielded victory at the southern end of the battlefield, giving the Italians possession of the key transportation junction at Doberdò as well as Mount San Michele, the site of so much futile bloodshed in the first five battles of the Isonzo – albeit with heavy losses once again. 

With no reserves immediately available and his existing forces already stretched to the breaking point, the talented commander of the Austro-Hungarian Fifth Army, Svetozar Boroević, had no choice but to allow his troops to begin making limited withdrawals to the second line of defenses behind Gorizia on August 7. The following day the Italians realized, to their astonishment, that Gorizia was virtually defenseless; as the nearest bridge was still under Austrian artillery fire, a small group of around 100 Italian soldiers simply waded across the shallow river and occupied the town, in something of an anticlimax following so much bloodshed on its doorstep. 

Realizing that momentum was on their side for once, Cadorna ordered the Duke of Aosta to continue attacking the Habsburg second line in the western part of the desolate Carso plateau behind Gorizia, while sending the Italian Second Army to help exploit the unexpected success by attacking from the north and seizing the bridgehead at Plava. But with Gorizia lost Boroević saw no point in holding on to the western Carso plateau, and on August 9 the Habsburgs withdrew to a strong new defensive line running north-south along the far slope of the Vallone valley in the eastern Carso – and here the Italian offensive finally ran out of steam. Despite repeated assaults over the following week, the Habsburg defenders couldn’t be budged from their new trenches and on August 17 Cadorna finally broke off the offensive. 

As usual, the losses on both sides were astronomical, with the attackers suffering disproportionately: total Italian casualties came to around 100,000 including 21,000 dead, while the Habsburgs lost around 42,000 including 8,000 dead. And as always, no man’s land and the captured enemy trenches presented gruesome sights, by now all too familiar across Europe as the First World War ground on and on. Crossing what was recently no man’s land to enter Gorizia behind the victorious Italian troops, Price recalled:

The spectacle we had before us of violence and death is indescribable. Everything had been levelled and literally pounded to atoms by the Italian artillery. The ground all around was pitted with shell holes, and strewn with every imaginable kind of debris… broken rifles, unused cartridges by the thousand, fragments of shell-cases, boots, first-aid bandages, and odds and ends of uniforms covered with blood. 

The Habsburg first line trenches, where many brave troops had made a desperate last stand before the order to withdraw came, were even more horrifying:

The Austrian dead were literally lying in heaps along the bottom. They were so numerous in places, that had it not been for an occasional glimpse of an upturned face, or a hand or a foot, one might have thought that these heaps were merely discarded uniforms or accouterments. It produced an uncanny sensation of horror walking alongside these furrows of death, and this was heightened by the fact that at the time we were the only living beings there… I recollect I had the strange impression of being with a little band of explorers, as it were, in an unearthly region.

Turks Defeated In Sinai 

Around 1,500 miles to the southeast across the Mediterranean, a very different battle unfolded in the Sinai Desert from August 3-7, as the Turks tried once again to foil British preparations for an offensive and maybe even capture the Suez Canal, thus severing this key lifeline between Britain and India, the crown jewel of the British Empire. Most of the fighting actually took place near the village of Romani, about 23 miles east of the canal in the middle of the Sinai Desert. 

The Ottomans and their German allies were alarmed by British construction of a new railroad and pipeline for water east into the Sinai from the town of Kantara on the canal, which would eventually enable the British to advance across the desert to mount an attack on Palestine – opening the way to Syria and beyond it the Turkish heartland in Anatolia. In a last bid to stop the British before they came any closer, from late July to early August a Turkish force of around 16,000, partly led by German officers, marched west across the Sinai to attack the British (actually Dominion troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZAC) defending the advancing railhead at Romani. 

The Battle of Romani pitted infantry from the Turkish 3rd Division and the special German-led Pasha I formation, along with irregular camel cavalry, against a slightly smaller British force, including infantry from the 52nd (Lowland) Division and light cavalry from the ANZAC Mounted Division. British cavalry patrols first established contact with the approaching enemy force in desert skirmishes during the night of August 3 continuing into August 4, when the outnumbered British cavalry began to fall back.

The arrival of more ANZAC cavalry reinforcements bolstered the defenders, who put up a stiff resistance as they fell back to stronger positions protecting the southern approach to the railroad, while the main infantry force of the 52nd Division defended the railhead east of the village of Romani. The Turkish and German attackers, running low on water and now mired in deep, shifting sands, were unable to regain the momentum and soon found themselves on the defensive, harried all along the line by the mobile ANZAC cavalry. By August 6 the attacking force was in retreat, although this time (unlike previous Turkish offensives against the canal) they managed to retain their cohesion and fended off repeated British-ANZAC attacks, preventing the withdrawal from becoming a rout. 

Oskar Teichman, a medical officer with the ANZAC forces, recalled the aftermath of the fight in the Sinai Desert near Romani, showing once again that ordinary troops were frequently capable of sympathizing with their foes, at least when they weren’t actively trying to kill them:

It seemed very horrible to think of the number of wounded and dying Turks who must have been left out. We did what we could, but had no organization to deal with the large numbers… It was extraordinary how one’s feelings changed after a battle – during the fight, while our men were getting hit, one felt delighted every time one saw a Turk drop; but when it was all over and we had got all our wounded safely back, one thought of the number of wounded Turks who would probably never be found in this undulating country, condemned to die of thirst. 

The ANZAC wounded, while doubtless faring better than wounded Turks left in the desert, still had to endure almost unimaginably miserable conditions, as Teichman himself soon discovered. After being wounded, Teichman had to wait over a day, first at the field ambulance station and then aboard open-air train cars, before finally being evacuated to Kantara on August 7: 

This was the end of the desert railway, which was being rapidly pushed out across the Sinai Peninsula. The Field Ambulance was very congested, and there were many rows of us lying on stretchers, together with numerous wounded Turks. At 5.30 we were taken out of the tents and placed in the train. This “hospital train” consisted of one engine and a number of open trucks, the latter containing nothing – not even straw… On reaching Pelusium our engine broke down and the train waited for a considerable time; then the shrieks and groans of the wounded broke the stillness of the quiet night. But worse was to come: we had to be shunted in order to let a supply train pass through… It was a bad night, and one could not forget the horrors of that train journey. 

For the rest of the ANZAC and British troops, deployed further back to guard the Suez Canal, the main enemy wasn’t the Turks or Germans but nature itself, including sand storms, biting insects, disease, and above all the heat of the Egyptian desert in summertime (below, Australian troops sit on the banks of the canal in April 1916). 

John Tennant, a British air commander who passed through the Suez Canal in July, described conditions aboard the ship in the nearby Red Sea, which left no doubt that,

the “Briton” had not been built for these climates; the saloon at meals was like an Inferno, and it was too hot too sleep… The second afternoon the ship’s doctor died of heat-stroke; we buried him over the poop next morning in a thick haze of heat. The human frame could stand little more; the perspiration ran from head on to deck and down legs into boots. No sooner had we buried the doctor than one of the crew went down outside my cabin; his clothes were taken off, and we put him close to the side of the ship to get any air there might be, but despite all efforts he was gone in two hours. 

Unsurprisingly the British and ANZAC troops spent as much time as possible either in their tents or bathing in the Suez Canal itself (below, ANZAC troops bathing and sunning themselves). 

Like ordinary soldiers all over Europe, during the long periods of inactivity and mind-numbing boredom, British and ANZAC troops guarding the Suez Canal also had the uneasy feeling that their superiors may simply have forgotten about them. Tennant recalled the melancholy exchanges between homesick troops on the ship and restless troops on shore as the ship passed through the canal in July 1916: 

All that stifling July night we were passing British encampments; many of the Tommies were floating about in the Canal, trying to get cool, even at 1 a.m. All night a fusillade of questions passed between ship and shore; the details aboard were anxious to find out if any battalions of their own units were ashore. In answer to their questions “Any Welshmen” “Any Leicesters?” from the dimness of the banks would come a weary attempt at cheerfulness, “Any beer?” The men on shore seemed to feel forgotten in the desert…

See the previous installment or all entries.

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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