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Ninth Isonzo, Strikes Rock Petrograd

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 255th installment in the series.  

October 31, 1916: Ninth Isonzo, Strikes Rock Petrograd 

After the surprising Italian victory during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo, Italian chief of the general staff Luigi Cadorna tried to maintain the momentum and achieve a breakthrough by employing the same tactics in the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Battles of the Isonzo. But success proved fleeting, and the bloody stasis of trench warfare soon settled over the Isonzo front again. 

Although they wouldn’t know this until later, the Italians came tantalizingly close to a breakthrough on several occasions, thanks to the lessons of the Sixth Isonzo. For the Ninth Isonzo, lasting from October 31-November 4, 1916, Cadorna amassed a huge amount of artillery against a relatively narrow length of front covering the high, desolate Carso Plateau, with around 1,350 guns giving them a three-to-one advantage here.  The Italian Second and Third Armies also enjoyed a massive advantage in manpower over Svetozar Boreović’s Habsburg Fifth Army.  

After a blistering six-day bombardment beginning October 25, at 12:30 p.m. on October 31, Italian Third Army commander, the Duke of Aosta, began launching the first limited attacks to probe the Habsburg front lines for chinks in the enemy defenses. With this intelligence in hand, the Italian bombardment resumed on November 1, followed by an all-out infantry assault.

While the Italian Second Army mounted a diversionary attack to the north around Gorizia, the Third Army infantry poured forward from their trenches (top, Italian troops go over the top). Superior numbers and firepower yielded initial success, as the Italians scaled the heights of the Carso Plateau and pushed the outnumbered Habsburg troops back again and again.

Once again it seemed like the Italians were about to achieve the longed-for breakthrough, clearing the way to the great prize, Trieste. In fact the beleaguered Habsburg defenders were forced to fall back to their second line of trenches further east – which in this stretch of the front were only backup defenses separating the Italians from the Dual Monarchy’s interior provinces. 

With the Habsburg VII Corps under commander Archduke Joseph about to give way, on November 3, 1916 the situation was saved by the bravery and elan of a small group of ordinary soldiers – the 4th Battalion of the 61st Regiment, an ethnically mixed unit composed of Austrians, Hungarian Magyars, Romanians, and Serbs. Led by a 30-year-old mid-ranking officer, Captain Peter Roosz, the battalion surpassed all expectations in a desperate battle ranging across the Carso Plateau, repelling Italian forces six times its size – contradicting the stereotypical image of the Habsburg Army as demoralized and riven by ethnic strife. 

After this remarkable performance, the situation was finally stabilized by the arrival of a reserve division from the Eastern Front, transferred by Habsburg chief of the general staff Conrad von Hotzendorf with the reluctant acquiescence of his new German counterpart, Paul von Hindenburg. With these reinforcements in place, a final Italian assault on November 4 was sent reeling with very heavy losses, and Cadorna was forced to call off the attack.

The Ninth Battle of the Isonzo had cost the Italians 39,000 casualties, including killed, wounded, missing and prisoners, versus 33,000 for the Habsburgs. Including the previous Seventh and Eighth Battles of the Isonzo, the total came to 75,000 Italian casualties and 63,000 Habsburg. Overall, by November 1916 Austria-Hungary (which also bore the brunt of the Russian Brusilov Offensive that summer) had suffered over four million casualties, including around a million dead, 1.8 million wounded, and 1.5 million taken prisoner. For its part Italy had sustained well over half a million casualties over a year and half of fighting, with around 185,000 dead and 475,000 wounded by the end of 1916. 

Strikes Rock Petrograd 

As the year 1916 wound down and fall gave way to winter, the situation on the “home front” was looking grim across Europe, as civilians on both sides of the war faced growing shortages of essential items including food, clothing, medicine and fuel. Nowhere was the suffering worse than in Russia, where food shortages, inflation, hording and price gouging left more and more ordinary people close to starvation. 

Indeed the relative success of the Brusilov Offensive in the summer of 1916, which came at the cost of 1.4 million Russian casualties, did nothing to assuage growing anger over the general mismanagement of the economy and war effort, widely blamed on official corruption and above all the feckless incompetence of the opaque, unaccountable tsarist regime. Even illiterate peasants were aware of the sinister influence wielded by the malign “holy man” Rasputin over the mystically-inclined Tsarina Alexandra, who in turn encouraged the autocratic impulses of her husband Nicholas II, with disastrous results – managing to alienate both the Duma (Russia’s parliament) and the monarchy’s natural allies in the Orthodox Church.

On October 30-31, spiraling food prices and stagnant wages triggered a wave of strikes by industrial workers across the capital Petrograd and its suburbs – this time with a distinctly revolutionary flavor. In his diary entry on October 31, 1916, the French ambassador to Russia, Maurice Paleologue, noted that some unknown power seemed to be at work: “For the last two days all the factories in Petrograd have been on strike. The workmen left the shops without giving any reason, and simply on an order issued by some mysterious committee.”

Even worse, the strikes revealed that the pillars of the regime’s authority were crumbling. A French industrialist with a factory in Petrograd told Paleologue an alarming account of events during the strike, in a conversation also recorded by the ambassador in his diary:

“While work was in full swing this afternoon, a party of strikers from the Baranovsky works besieged our establishment, shouting: ‘Down with the French! No more war!...  The police had meanwhile arrived and soon realized that they could not cope with the situation. A squad of gendarmes then succeeded in forcing a way through the crowd, and went to fetch two infantry regiments which are in barracks quite near. The two regiments appeared a few minutes later, but instead of raising the siege of our factory they fired on the police.” “On the police!” “Yes, Monsieur l'Ambassadeur; you can see the bullet marks on our walls… A stand-up fight followed. At length we heard the gallop of the Cossacks, four regiments of them. They charged the infantrymen and drove them back to their barracks at the point of the lance.”

This turn of events – with ordinary soldiers not only refusing to fire on their own people, but turning on the police instead – was an unmistakable sign that revolution was in the offing. Needless to say, the execution a week later of 150 soldiers who had fired on police did nothing to calm the situation. Already, by December 1916 anywhere from one million to 1.5 million Russian soldiers had deserted, further stoking revolutionary fervor behind the front. The Russian autocracy was living on borrowed time. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Pop Culture
Mister Rogers Is Now a Funko Pop! and It’s Such a Good Feeling, a Very Good Feeling
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It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood for fans of Mister Rogers, as Funko has announced that, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the kindest soul to ever grace a television screen will be honored with a series of Funko toys, some of them limited-edition versions.

The news broke at the New York Toy Fair, where the pop culture-loving toy company revealed a new Pop Funko! in Fred Rogers’s likeness—he’ll be holding onto the Neighborhood Trolley—plus a Mister Rogers Pop! keychain and a SuperCute Plush.

In addition to the standard Pop! figurine, there will also be a Funko Shop exclusive version, in which everyone’s favorite neighbor will be wearing a special blue sweater. Barnes & Noble will also carry its own special edition, which will see Fred wearing a red cardigan and holding a King Friday puppet instead of the Neighborhood Trolley.

 

Barnes & Noble's special edition Mister Rogers Funko Pop!
Funko

Mister Rogers’s seemingly endless supply of colored cardigans was an integral part of the show, and a sweet tribute to his mom (who knitted all of them). But don’t go running out to snatch up the whole collection just yet; Funko won’t release these sure-to-sell-out items until June 1, but you can pre-order your Pop! on Amazon right now.

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10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
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Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens’ maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

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