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.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

13 Facts About Miller's Crossing On Its 30th Anniversary

Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro in Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing (1990).
Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro in Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing (1990).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In 1990 Joel and Ethan Coen were not yet the Oscar-winning, cinephile-worshipped filmmaking legends they are today. They had only written and directed two films: 1984’s inventive neo-noir Blood Simple and 1987’s screwball kidnapping comedy Raising Arizona. Though the brothers had drawn critical acclaim for both, they hadn’t yet proven themselves as the true cinematic chameleons we know them as now.

With Miller’s Crossing, an intricate gangster drama that contrasts fedoras and overcoats with the serenity of the forest, the Coens proved they were capable of even more than their brilliant first two efforts suggested. Though it was critically acclaimed, Miller’s Crossing was lost to most audiences in the mire of that year’s other gangster pictures (most notably Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which was released just two weeks ahead of Miller’s Crossing) and as such is one of the lesser-known entries in the Coens’s filmography. In honor of its 30th anniversary, we dug up some fascinating facts in the hope of changing that.

1. Miller's Crossing was inspired by a single contrasting image.

One of the most memorable shots in Miller’s Crossing features a hat belonging to Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne's character) floating through the forest on a breeze. It’s more than a pretty shot; it’s an indicator of the deliberate contrast that inspired the film. The Coen brothers noted that the film was conceived based on the idea of “the incongruity of urban gangsters in a forest setting.”

2. The Coen brothers turned down Batman to make Miller's Crossing.

After Raising Arizona’s success established the Coens as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the brothers had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

3. Miller's Crossing was the final film the Coens made with Barry Sonnenfeld.

Barry Sonnenfeld became a very sought-after cinematographer throughout the 1980s, in part because of his collaborations with the Coens. Their directorial debut, Blood Simple, was his first feature film as a director of photography, and he went on to shoot both Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing for them. The year after Miller’s Crossing was released, Sonnenfeld made his directorial debut with The Addams Family, and went on to direct further hits like Men In Black and Get Shorty.

4. Miller's Crossing was the Coens's first collaboration with Steve Buscemi.

Steve Buscemi in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Throughout their careers, the Coens have developed a very prestigious company of actors who frequently appear in their films, and Steve Buscemi is among the most prolific. He has appeared in six Coen films, most famously Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). The collaboration started here, when Buscemi was cast as Mink, apparently because he was able to speak faster than anyone else, and fast-talking was crucial to the role.

5. Miller's Crossing was also the Coens's first movie with John Turturro.

When John Turturro was cast as Bernie Bernbaum, the bookie who ignites the mob war at the center of Miller's Crossing, it marked the beginning of a fruitful four-film collaboration with the Coens. They wrote the title role of their next film, 1991’s Barton Fink, specifically for Turturro (who won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor Award for his performance). Of the brothers’s working relationship with Turturro, Ethan Coen once said: “It’s beyond shorthand. We don’t even talk to him!”

6. Miller's Crossing is one of the few Coen brothers movies (so far) not edited by Roderick Jaynes.

To date, the Coen brothers have written and directed 18 feature films, and 15 of them have been either edited or co-edited by Roderick Jaynes. That level of deep collaboration would make Jaynes the Coens’s most frequent collaborator ever … if he were a real person. Jaynes is actually a pseudonym used when the Coens edit their own movies.

7. A sudden death led to Albert Finney being cast as Leo O'Bannon in Miller's Crossing.

As Irish mob boss Leo O’Bannon, Albert Finney is at the center of some of the film’s best scenes—and he’s fantastic in them. Sadly, though, he’s only in the film because another actor died tragically before filming began. The Coens originally cast American actor Trey Wilson, whom they had worked with on Raising Arizona, as Leo. But when Wilson died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 40, the part went to Finney instead.

8. Peter Stormare was supposed to play a mob enforcer in Miller's Crossing.

The Coens’ original plan for Miller’s Crossing involved Peter Stormare playing a character called “The Swede,” who would be the trusted enforcer of Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). A commitment to a theatrical production in Sweden meant that Stormare had to turn down the role, though, so the part was rewritten as “The Dane” and played by J.E. Freeman. Stormare ultimately got to work with the Coens six years later on Fargo, and again two years after that on The Big Lebowski.

9. Gabriel Byrne had to convince the Coens to let him keep his Irish accent in Miller's Crossing.

Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Though he was an Irish native playing a lieutenant to an Irish mobster, the Coens did not originally want Gabriel Byrne to use his own accent in the film. Byrne argued that his dialogue was structured in such a way that it was a good fit for his accent, and after he tried it, the Coens agreed. Ultimately, both Byrne and Finney used Irish accents in the film.

10. Marcia Gay Harden faced some stiff competition for her role in Miller's Crossing.

As Verna Bernbaum, whose relationships with both Leo and Tom ignite some of the film’s key tensions, Marcia Gay Harden delivered one of the best performances of her career, but it wasn’t an easy role to get. She reportedly competed for the role against the likes of Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

11. Jon Polito had to convince the Coens to cast him in a different role in Miller's Crossing.

Jon Polito in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

When Polito read the Miller’s Crossing script, he loved it and immediately wanted to audition for the role of Johnny Caspar. The Coens had different ideas, and were considering the 39-year-old actor for the role of Caspar’s enforcer, Eddie Dane, instead. The role of Caspar was originally supposed to go to an actor in his mid-50s, but Polito was adamant.

“Anyway, I said I won’t read for anything but Johnny Caspar,” Polito, who passed away in 206, told The A.V. Club. “’And tell them that they’re gonna have to come back to me cause I’m gonna play Johnny.’”

The Coens ultimately gave in, and Polito was cast. They must have liked what they saw, too, because they ended up casting him in four more films after that.

12. A snag in the Miller's Crossing script ultimately led to Barton Fink.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

13. Miller's Crossing features several cameos from regular Coen collaborators.

The Coens frequently include cameos from actors and friends in their films, and Miller’s Crossing is particularly full of them. Frances McDormand, who is married to Joel Coen and has appeared in several of their films to date (including Fargo, for which she won an Oscar), plays the mayor’s secretary in one scene. In another, Sam Raimi—a Coen friend and collaborator (the Coens wrote 1985’s Crimewave with Raimi, which Raimi directed, and Raimi later co-wrote The Hudsucker Proxy with the brothers—appears as a crooked cop in a shootout scene. Albert Finney already had a prominent role as Leo, but he enjoyed making the movie so much that he stuck around after his scenes were completed and showed up in drag in a ladies’ room scene. (He’s the “woman” in black on the right side of the screen.)

This story has been updated for 2020.