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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.

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10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
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Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for more than 40 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guardaldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother, Linus, however, is still a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGG.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of whatever holiday they’re celebrating. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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13 Great Facts About Bad Lieutenant
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Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Bad Lieutenant can be accused of many things, but one charge you can't level against it is false advertising. Harvey Keitel's title character, whose name is never given, is indeed a bad, bad lieutenant: corrupt, sleazy, drug-addled, irresponsible, and lascivious, all while he's on the job. (Imagine what his weekends must be like!)

Abel Ferrara's nightmarish character study was controversial when it was released 25 years ago today, and rated NC-17 for its graphic nudity (including a famous glimpse at Lil’ Harvey), unsettling sexual violence, and frank depiction of drug use. The film packs a wallop, no doubt. Here's some behind-the-scenes info to help you cope with it.

1. THE PLACID WOMAN WHO HELPS THE LIEUTENANT FREEBASE HEROIN WROTE THE MOVIE.

That's Zoë Tamerlis Lund, who starred in Abel Ferrara's revenge-exploitation thriller Ms. 45 (1981) more than a decade earlier, when she was 17 years old. She and Ferrara are credited together for writing Bad Lieutenant, though she always insisted that wasn't the case. "I wrote this alone," she said. "Abel is a wonderful director, but he's not a screenwriter." She said elsewhere that she "wrote every word of that screenplay," though everyone agrees the finished movie included a lot of improvisation. Lund was a fascinating, tragic character herself—a musical prodigy who became an enthusiastic and unapologetic user of heroin before switching to cocaine in the mid-1990s. She died of heart failure in 1999 at age 37.

2. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN WAS SUPPOSED TO STAR IN IT.

Christopher Walken had starred in Ferrara's previous film, King of New York (1990), and was set to play the lead in Bad Lieutenant before pulling out at almost the last minute. Ferrara was shocked. "[Walken] says, 'You know, I don't think I'm right for it.' Which is, you know, a fine thing to say, unless it's three weeks from when you're supposed to start shooting," Ferrara said. "It definitely caught me by surprise. It put me in terminal shock, actually." Harvey Keitel replaced him (though not without difficulty; see below), and the film's editor, Anthony Redman, thought Keitel was a better choice anyway. "Chris is too elegant for the part," he said. "Harvey is not elegant." 

3. HARVEY KEITEL'S INITIAL REACTION TO THE SCRIPT WAS NOT PROMISING.

"When we gave [Keitel] the script the first time, he read about five pages and threw it in the garbage," Ferrara said. Keitel's recollection was a little more diplomatic. As he told Roger Ebert, "I read a certain amount of pages and I put it down. I said, 'There's no way I'm gonna make this movie.' And then I asked myself, 'How often am I a lead in a movie? Read it, maybe I can salvage something from it …' When I read the part about the nun, I understood why Abel wanted to make it."

4. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY.


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"It was always, in my mind, a comedy," Ferrara said. He cited the scene where the Lieutenant pulls the teenage girls over as a specific example of how Christopher Walken would have played it, and how Harvey Keitel changed it. "The lieutenant was going to end up dancing in the streets with the girls as the sun came up. They'd be wearing his gun belt and hat, and they'd have the radio on, you know what I mean? But oh my God, Harvey, he turned it into this whole other thing." Boy, did he. 

5. THAT SCENE WITH THE TEENAGE GIRLS HAD A REAL-LIFE ELEMENT THAT MADE IT EVEN CREEPIER.

One of the young women was Keitel's nanny. Ferrara: "I said, 'You sure you want to do this with your babysitter?' He says, 'Yeah, I want to try something.'"

6. MUCH OF IT WAS FILMED GUERRILLA-STYLE.

Like many indie-minded directors of low-budget films, Ferrara didn't bother with permits most of the time. "We weren't permitted on any of this stuff," editor Anthony Redman admitted. "We just walked on and started shooting." For the scene where a strung-out Lieutenant walks through a bumpin' nightclub, they sent Keitel through an actual, functioning club during peak operating hours.

7. A GREAT DEAL OF THE DIALOGUE AND ACTION WERE MADE UP ON THE FLY.

The script was only about 65 pages at first, which would have made for about a 65-minute movie. "It left a lot of room for improvisation," producer Randy Sabusawa said, "but the ideas were pretty distilled. They were there."

Script supervisor Karen Kelsall said supervising the script was a challenge. "Abel didn't stick to a script," she said. "Abel used a script as a way to get the money to make a movie, and then the script was kind of—we called it the daily news. It changed every day. It changed in the middle of scenes." Ferrara was unapologetic about the script's brevity. "The idea of wanting 90 pages ... is ridiculous."

8. AND THERE WERE EVEN MORE IDEAS THAT THEY DIDN'T USE.

Ferrara said a scene that epitomized the movie for him—even though he never got around to filming it—was one where the Lieutenant robs an electronics store, leaves, then gets a call about a robbery at the electronics store. He responds in an official capacity (they don't recognize him), takes a statement, walks out, and throws the statement in the garbage. "And that to me is the Bad Lieutenant, you know?" Ferrara said. 

9. THE BASEBALL PLAYOFF SERIES IS FICTIONAL.

The Mets have battled the Dodgers for the National League championship once, in 1988. (The Dodgers beat 'em and went on to win the World Series.) For the narrative Ferrara wanted—the Mets coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win the pennant—he had to make it up. He used footage from real Mets-Dodgers games (including Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer from a game in July 1991) and added fictional play-by-play. But the statistics were accurate: No team had ever been down by three in a best-of-seven series and then come back to win. (It's happened once since then, when the 2004 Red Sox did it.)

10. THEY HAD HELP FROM THE COP WHO SOLVED A SIMILAR CASE.

The disgusting crime at the center of the film (we won't dwell on it) was inspired by a real-life incident from 1981, which mayor Ed Koch called "the most heinous crime in the history of New York City." The street cop who solved it, Bo Dietl, advised Ferrara on the film and had an on-screen role as one of the detectives in our Lieutenant's circle of friends.

11. THEY DESECRATED THE CHURCH AS RESPECTFULLY AS THEY COULD.

Production designer Charles Lagola had his team cover the church’s altar and other surfaces with plastic wrap, then painted the graffiti and other defacements on the plastic.

12. IT WAS RATED NC-17 IN THEATERS, WITH AN R-RATED VERSION FOR HOME VIDEO.

Blockbuster and some of the other retail chains wouldn't carry NC-17 or unrated films, so sometimes studios would produce edited versions. (See also: Requiem for a Dream.) The tamer version of Bad Lieutenant was five minutes and 19 seconds shorter, with parts of the rape scene, the drug-injecting scene, and much of the car interrogation scene excised.

13. THE "SEQUEL" HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, NOR DID FERRARA APPROVE OF IT.


First Look International

Movie buffs were baffled in 2009, when Werner Herzog directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage. It sounds like a sequel (or a remake), but in fact had no connection at all to the earlier film except that both were produced by Edward R. Pressman. Herzog said he'd never seen Ferrara's movie and wanted to change the title (Pressman wouldn't let him); Ferrara, outspoken as always, initially wished fiery death on everyone involved. Ferrara and Herzog finally met at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where Herzog initiated a conversation about the whole affair and Ferrara expressed his frustration cordially. 

Additional sources:
DVD interviews with Abel Ferrara, Anthony Redman, Randy Sabusawa, and Karen Kelsall.

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