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.