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.

Orson Welles's Former Hollywood Hills Estate Is Taking Vacation Reservations

Fred Mott, Getty Images
Fred Mott, Getty Images

Orson Welles's former Hollywood Hills estate is a perfect place to get away from society, grow a bushy beard, and brood over a bottle of whiskey.

Interested? The late Hollywood icon's 3000-square-foot home is available to rent for about $755 a night through HomeAway. The house, which sits on its own private 15,000-square-foot knoll, was home to Welles at the very beginning of his career and is where he wrote the screenplay for 1941's Citizen Kane. Bring along your typewriter and try to channel some of his greatness.

Quite a few other celebrities have inhabited the house as well, including Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and David Bowie. Features of the grand four-bedroom mansion—built in 1928—include a lagoon pool, Jacuzzi, deck, and both canyon and city views.

There's never been a better time to rent Welles's abode: his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, is set to premiere at this month's Venice Film Festival before arriving on Netflix. The unfinished flick, which was shot intermittently between 1970 and 1976, has been completed and restored for its much-anticipated release. (Of course the mansion has plenty of TVs for your viewing pleasure.)

The property has a three- to five-night stay minimum, depending on the season. For more pictures, see below or head to HomeAway. And since you're already in vacation-planning mode, another creative celebrity abode to consider is F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's Montgomery, Alabama home, which is available to rent via Airbnb.

Orson Welles' house
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles mansion
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

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