WWI Centennial: Battle of Messines

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 278th installment in the series.

June 7-14, 1917: Battle of Messines

The abject failure of the Nivelle Offensive in April 1917 triggered mutinies throughout the French Army in May and June, threatening to paralyze the Allied war effort. Although the Germans never caught wind of them, the Allies were understandably worried they might try to exploit the disastrous French defeat and ensuing chaos with a sudden onslaught against the demoralized, disorganized French forces.

At the same time huge shipping losses inflicted by U-boats beginning in the spring of 1917 focused Allied attention on German submarine bases on the coast of Belgium, whose location allowed the U-boats to slip through the English Channel to prey upon the Atlantic sea lanes (as opposed to the much longer route through the North Sea and around Scotland, which burned up precious fuel, limiting their time in the hunting grounds). The Royal Navy made a number of attempts to destroy or disable these bases, including an attack by destroyers against Ostend on June 4-5, 1917, but these were ultimately unsuccessful, while other measures – including mine fields and submarine nets to block the Channel route – were still mostly ineffective at this stage of the war.

To relieve pressure on the French, deprive the Germans of their submarine bases, and maybe even achieve a strategic breakthrough, Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, planned to carry out two linked offensives in Belgium in the summer of 1917. The first attack yielded a British tactical victory at Messines; the second, the waking nightmare of Passchendaele.

Western Front June
Erik Sass

"THE NOISE WAS IMPOSSIBLE"

The first offensive concentrated on high ground south of Ypres (already the scene of two ferocious battles in 1914 and 1915) and especially the Messines Ridge near the village of the same name – strategic positions with a sweeping view of enemy lines, laying the groundwork for the second offensive east of Ypres. 

At Messines, twelve divisions of the British Second Army under Sir Herbert Plumer, numbering 216,000 men (including Canadian and ANZAC troops) would face five divisions of heavily entrenched defenders from the German Fourth Army under Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, numbering 126,000 men – not a favorable balance of forces for the attackers, by the standards of the First World War.

However the British had a few key advantages, including the new tactic of the creeping barrage, which had proven effective at the recent Battle of Arras, and another weapon of truly demonic power – a chain of 26 massive mines, painstakingly excavated beneath the German lines on Messines Ridge over many months and then packed with over 450 tons of ammonal high explosive. The detonation of these mines would produce one of the largest manmade non-nuclear explosions in history (although four of the mines failed to explode; top, one of the craters).

The British offensive was preceded by ten days of extraordinarily intense artillery bombardment, as over 2,200 guns of varying sizes dumped approximately 3.5 million shells on the German lines. Finally, around 2:40 a.m. on June 7, 1917 the guns briefly fell silent, while the first wave of British soldiers quietly crept out of the trenches and lay flat on the earth in no-man’s-land, preparing to rush the German lines as soon as the mines exploded (below, British soldiers take communion during the battle).

The sudden pause in firing alerted the Germans that the British infantry attack was imminent, and the defenders streamed back to their frontline trenches in preparation for the assault – exactly as the British has hoped they would. At 3:10 a.m. the mines were fired and the bowels of the earth opened, while simultaneously the British guns resumed firing. Lieutenant A.G. May, a British machine gun officer, recalled the moment:

When I heard the first deep rumble I turned to the men and shouted, “Come on, let’s go.” A fraction of a second later a terrific roar and the whole earth seemed to rock and sway. The concussion was terrible, several of the men and myself being blown down violently. It seemed to be several minutes before the earth stood still again though it may not really have been more than a few seconds. Flames rose to a great height – silhouetted against the flame I saw huge blocks of earth that seemed to be as big as houses falling back to the ground. Small chunks and dirt fell all around. I saw a man flung out from behind a huge block of debris silhouetted against the sheet of flame… At the same time the mines went off the artillery let loose, the heaviest group artillery firing ever known. The noise was impossible and it is impossible for anyone who was not there to imagine what it was like.

According to later estimates around 10,000 German soldiers lost their lives in the space of a few moments when the mines exploded. Another British officer, E.N. Gladden, recorded similar impressions of the horrific event:

The ground began to rock and I felt my body carried up and down as by the waves of the sea. In front the earth opened and a large black mass was carried to the sky on pillars of fire, and there seemed to remain suspended for some seconds while the awful red glare lit up the surrounding desolation. No sound came. I had been expecting a noise from the mine so tremendous as to be unbearable. For a brief space all was silent, as though we had been too close to hear and the sound had leapt over us like some immense wave… And then there was a tremendous roar and a tearing across the skies above us, as the barrage commenced with unerring accuracy. It was as though a door had been suddenly flung open. The skies behind our lines were lit by the flashes of many thousand guns, and above the booming din of the artillery came the rasping rattle of the Vickers guns pouring a continuous stream of lead over into the enemy’s lines.

As so often, some observers noted that the horror and violence of the war were accompanied by surreal, spectacular beauty (above, the “Pool of Peace,” a pond formed in one of the craters). Jack Martin, a signaler in the Royal Engineers, wrote in his diary:

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember very vividly for the rest of my life – all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, left a description of strange high-altitude atmospheric effects later associated with the explosion of nuclear weapons:

‘Look!’ And there to the north on the crown of the great black dome we know is Messines Hill, we see a movement as of an enormous black tin hat slowly rising out of the hill. Suddenly the great rising mass is shattered into a black cloud of whirling dust as a huge rosette of flame bursts from it and great flames lick, dancing and flickering. High up in the sky above the explosion we see a bank of dark clouds turn red from the reflection of the terrible burst below.

With debris still raining down, and the creeping barrage forcing any remaining defenders to take cover, the attackers began to advance across no man’s land along a stretch of front ten miles long in the slowly rising dawn, supported by tanks and a large number of reserve troops waiting to exploit the breakthrough. Unsurprisingly, following the detonation of the mines in many places the advancing troops found that there was no resistance – and in fact no sign of defenders, trenches, or fortifications of any kind, aside from small scraps of barbed wire. In other places hundreds of German soldiers, still alive but traumatized by the explosions, surrendered en masse.

After around half an hour the attackers had captured their first objective and advanced halfway to the German second line. But plenty of German defenders remained alive, putting up a fierce fight from isolated strongpoints, while others withdrew to their rear trenches on the far slope of the ridge, where they worked feverishly to establish new defensive positions. Meanwhile German artillery, some of which managed to survive the mines and bombardment, plastered the attackers with shrapnel, high explosives, and poison gas. Lynch, the Australian private, described British artillery in action around 11 am, along with the German counter-barrage:

We watch the gunlayer on the nearest gun. He sits on his job laying his gun just as fast as the men can feed and fire it. His body jerks to the kicking recall. Blood is streaming from his nose and ears but he never lets up – bleeding from concussion. The great tanks move towards the big Messines Ridge. We move off to climb that great dusty, smoking hill… Suddenly the hillside above kicks up in fifty places as the Fritz barrage of screeching, roaring, bursting shells comes down and through which we must somehow walk… We see a section of men get a shell clean amongst them and get tossed like ninepins everywhere. One lone man rises and moves on where eight moved only a minute before.

The German guns also hit British rear areas in an attempt to disrupt British artillery and block the arrival of fresh troops. William Presser, a bombardier in the Royal Artillery, recalled being gassed at Messines while trying to sleep in a dugout later in the battle:

I was awakened by a terrific crash. The roof came down on my chest and legs and I couldn’t move anything but my head. I thought, “So this is it, then.” I found I could hardly breathe. Then I heard voices. Other fellows with gas helmets on, looking very frightening in the half-light, were lifting timber off me and one was forcing a gas helmet on me… The next thing I knew I was being carried on a stretcher past our officers and some distance from the guns… I supposed I resembled a kind of fish with my mouth open gasping for air. It seemed as if my lungs were gradually shutting up and my heart pounded away in my ears like the beat of a drum. On looking at the chap next to me I felt sick, for green stuff was oozing from the side of his mouth… I was always surprised when I found myself awake, for I felt sure that I would die in my sleep.

Tragically the British also suffered a number of casualties from “friendly fire,” due to confusion about the position of troops. James Rawlinson, a Canadian engineer, recalled surviving a German bombardment only to be hit by a British shell, permanently losing his sight to a sliver of shrapnel:

The enemy guns… opened up with a terrific fire, and the scenery round about was soon in a fine mess. Shells of varying calibre came thundering in our direction, throwing up, as they burst, miniature volcanoes and filling the air with dust and mud and smoke… We were congratulating ourselves that we were to pass through this ordeal uninjured, when suddenly a 5.9-inch shell fell short. It exploded almost in our midst, and I was unlucky enough to get in the way of one of the shrapnel bullets. I felt a slight sting in my right temple as though pricked by a red-hot needle--and then the world became black.

Meanwhile the attackers pressed on over Messines Ridge, with Lynch recalling:

Dust and smoke cover everything. We can barely see the sections on either hand yet somehow they still climb on and so do we. Eyes stinging from gas, dust and smoke, our dry throats burning from the biting fumes of the shells, coated with sweat and dirt, we climb through this terrible barrage, walking on the crumbling edge of a roaring, flashing volcano. Fifty times we’re up and down as shells nearly get us. Mad with thirst we move ever on. The leading two men of our little section go down hit. We step by them and climb on as orders are that no man is to fall out to attend the wounded.

German defenders captured during the attack could count themselves lucky, as according to Lynch, the attackers often weren’t in the mood to take prisoners alive:

‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’ And a small bunch of Fritz rush out of the pillbox as we near it. ‘Kamerad this amongst yourselves!’ And Whang! one of our men has thrown a bomb at them. Terrified, they fly out of the trench. Crack! Crack! Crack! blaze our rifles and not an enemy is on his feet. They’ve gone the way most machine-gunners go who leave their surrender too late. War is war.

Despite sustaining heavy casualties in some places, by the afternoon of June 7 the attackers had captured their final objective, the German third defensive line behind Messines Ridge. However the battle continued to rage, as the British pushed forward and the Germans staged a fighting retreat, while Rupprecht rushed reinforcements up to stem the advance (below, a captured trench). During the following week the British made their biggest gains on the southern half of the battlefield, allowing them to consolidate control of the lower reaches of the Messines Ridge to the south, while forcing the Germans back towards the village of Warneton.

Of course these gains came at a heavy price, as the German defenders dug in and more reinforcements arrived. Lynch recalled his final memory of the battle after being wounded on June 10:

I must reach our trench. I begin to crawl up the side of the shell hole I’m in. The side of the hole keeps moving upwards. Struggle as I may I can’t get out, can’t climb that moving bank. I begin to slip back, back, back into the hole and the bottom has dropped out of it. I can’t climb, can’t cling to the moving sides of this bottomless hole, and begin to drop, drop, drop into swaying utter blackness.

By June 14 the attackers had advanced up to three kilometers in many places – a major victory in the context of trench warfare. But as so often during the war, victory was as ghastly as defeat, although soldiers found themselves increasingly inured to scenes of horror. Martin, the signaler in the Royal Engineers, described advancing over the captured ground in his diary on June 8, 1917:

We had seen numerous dead bodies in all the ghastly horrors and mutilations of violent death, men with half their heads blown off and their brains falling over their faces – some with their abdomens torn open and their entrails hanging out – others stretched out with livid faces and blood-stained mouths, and unblinking eyes staring straight to heaven. Oh wives and mothers and sweethearts, what will this victory mean to you? Yet nature very readily adapts itself to its environment and can look on all these horrors without a shudder. But I should feel sick and almost terrified if I saw a man break his leg in the streets of London.

Unfortunately, as in previous victories (like the Canadian advance on Vimy Ridge during the Second Battle of Arras) the generals weren’t prepared to exploit the gains won by the valor of ordinary fighting men. Indeed, the logistical difficulties involved in bringing up fresh troops and ammunition shouldn’t be underestimated. Martin’s account gives some idea of the frenetic activity required to sustain the initial advance, as he wrote on June 10:

The RE Field Companies are working hard on pit-prop roads and trench tramways. They have carried them as far as the old front line and are now working across no-man’s-land. Their hardest work is now commencing. It is an extraordinary scene of animation. Wagons and lorries full of materials are arriving in constant succession and hundreds of men are unloading and carrying and putting in place…

Although Plumer urged Haig to press their advantage by continuing the attack, the BEF commander insisted on waiting until late July, giving the Germans almost eight weeks to adjust and enhance their defensive positions on the Gheluvelt Plateau and high ground to the east of Ypres, including around Passchendaele – a small Flemish village fated to become synonymous with mindless slaughter.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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WWI Centennial: July 4 in France
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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 312th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JULY 4, 1918: CELEBRATING INDEPENDENCE DAY IN FRANCE

In July 1917, three months after the United States declared war on Germany, there were just 20,000 American soldiers in France—a rounding error compared to the French Army and British Expeditionary Force, with around 2 million men each. One year later, however, the picture had changed dramatically: By the end of July 1918 there were 1.2 million American soldiers in France, a figure that would rise to over 2 million by the war’s end in November 1918.

With hundreds of thousands of Americans billeted in French villages near the front, undergoing crash training in the French countryside, operating a vast logistics network connecting French ports of disembarkation to the “forward zone,” or relaxing on leave in big cities and scores of provincial towns, in many places France seemed completely transformed, to the degree that more than one observer remarked that by the end of the war Paris had become “an American city.”

U.S. supply routes in France, World War I
Erik Sass

While this was obviously an exaggeration, the influx of Americans was yet another culture shock for ordinary people in France, especially in rural areas unused to seeing visitors of any stripe—even from other parts of France—before the war. Elmer Harden, an American soldier volunteering with the French Army, wrote home on July 9, 1918, describing the sudden change in the small French village where he was stationed:

“For the last three days we’ve been surrounded by American soldiers (our blue streets changed in a short summer night to khaki color); they are simply all over the place—sitting against the houses, sleeping under the hedges, walking up and down and across the roads. When the café opens they rush in and get “lit up” and dance and sing and make improper proposals to the “doll” who brings them their sarsaparilla … They make a noise they call French.”

U.S. forces in Europe, World War I
Erik Sass

On July 4, 1918—just a few days after America’s victorious fighting debut at Belleau Wood had helped turned the tide of the fourth German offensive of that year—French soldiers and civilians across the entire country celebrated America’s Independence Day in almost hysterical fashion, apparently spontaneously but with plenty of encouragement from the national, provincial, and local governments. The U.S. flag was ubiquitous, according to Mildred Aldrich, a retired American author living in France:

“Everywhere, even in the quiet and deserted streets of the other quarters, were the American flags. There was no shop too small to show one. Bonnes on the way to market had the Stars and Stripes on their market baskets. Every taxi cab was decorated with the flag … It floated on the tram-cars and the omnibuses, it hung out of almost every window, and at the entrance of the big apartment houses … Crippled soldiers distributed tiny flags on all the streets.”

Paris was the epicenter of this countrywide fete, probably one of the few instances in history when one country celebrated another country’s national day with as much enthusiasm, or even more, as the natives. The celebrations in the French capital focused on a parade by U.S. Marines and U.S. Army soldiers who had just forced the Germans from Belleau Wood near the Marne, as part of the successful Allied defense against the third and fourth German offensives in May and June, and received a deafening reception from a crowd of several hundred thousand Parisians (top, the Marines on parade). Elizabeth Ashe, a chief nurse with the Red Cross, participated in the July 4 parade and described the event:

“The 4th celebration in Paris made that day a never-to-be-forgotten one for those who were privileged to take part in the ceremonies. For a week before we watched with the deepest interest the preparations which were made all over the city, in fact all over France. The Stars and Stripes decorated every building … Our flag was placed in the center, flanked on each side by French flags … Our splendid Marines got the ovation they deserved.”

Ashe and her subordinates joined the parade:

“To our delight the nurses were asked by the French government to march in the parade. It was the first time women have ever marched in a parade in Paris … I carried the flag, it was the proudest moment of my life, in fact don’t think I ever had that proud feeling before. But when we fell in line behind the Marines, our band playing Dixie and I held that banner on high the cheers of the crowd, “Vive l’Amerique,” I really felt that I had reached the supreme moment of my life … every now and then someone would dart from the crowd, saying: ‘I want to touch that flag.’”

However, as in the case of other combatant nations, it would be inaccurate to attribute undiluted patriotism and martial spirit to Americans involved in the war. Many American soldiers and civilian volunteers headed for the war zone nervously anticipated how their own personalities might change once they came face to face with the brutal reality of warfare. Others rejected the war outright on religious or moral grounds. “This whole business, far from being one of my choice, [is] by no means in accord with my bringing up or education,” wrote Donald E. Carey, an American soldier at Camp Custer on July 2, 1918. Another American soldier, Emmet Britton, a first lieutenant, worried that hatred would scar him psychologically:

“Right now I bear no personal hate toward the Hun but more of the feeling that I have had when sitting on a court-martial. The Hun has done wrong, therefore he must be punished. But no bitterness is in my soul and if I can fully do my duty without it entering into my heart I pray to God that I may do so. For bitterness is too liable to warp one’s outlook on life so that none of the beautiful things may be enjoyed.”

At the same time, Americans already serving in France found themselves undergoing their own personal transformations, as they remembered the reasons they initially enlisted and compared these with their subsequent experiences and outlook once in France. In a letter home on May 30, 1918, Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, noted that he had gained a firmer grasp on the reasons for U.S. participation in the war “to make the world safe for democracy,” as President Wilson had explained:

“Would I be content to see the war end in a German victory tomorrow? It would mean the end of all this misery and suffering, an end of sleepless nights, an end of crawling slowly thru pitch blackness alone and badly frightened, an end of being 3000 miles from home and in a strange land. But we have been long enough in France to have caught the Frenchman’s infectious love of his country and his hatred for the Boches and I decided then that if only France could be saved, if only the Germans’ wrongs could be avenged, I would gladly endure the discomfort, fears, and hardships of war for five more years. When we enlisted it was from no love of France and not from any poignant hatred of the Germans. It was a duty, a duty to be accepted gladly because thru its performance we should see new sights and experience thrills and strange sensations. Tonight all this is changed; the cause of France has become our own real cause and her hatred has become our own real hatred. We are no longer supernumeraries in a show; we are part of the cast itself.”

These feelings of affection for France were hardly universal, however, as Americans expressed a range of feelings about the host country they were now fighting to defend. Katharine Morse, an American woman volunteering in YMCA canteens, described American attitudes (strongly colored by primitive conditions in rural France, as well as inclement French winter weather) in January 1918:

“Altogether we are inclined to take very pessimistic view at present of our surroundings. ‘This land is a thousand years behind the times,’ is the reiterated comment, and who can blame them, having seen nothing of France but these tiny primitive mud-and-muck villages? ‘It ain’t worth fightin’ for. Why if I owned this country I’d give it to the Germans and apologize to ‘em.’”

On the other hand, many Americans enjoyed new-found affinities with other Allies, particularly English-speaking soldiers from the British dominions Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (the latter two designated ANZAC troops). According to observers from both hemispheres, Americans seemed to get along especially well with Australians. Kenneth Gow, an American officer, wrote home:

“I like the Britishers, particularly the Australians. The officers are all gentlemen. The Englishman has a reserve very hard to break through, but once it is down he is very much a human being … The Australians seem to be the particular cronies of all the American troops. They are more like ourselves than any of the other allies.”

In the same vein, Caspar Burton, an American officer, wrote home in September 1918, “The Americans and the Australians, I venture to remark, hit off better than any two forces in this whole war.”

Conversely, sectional tensions between soldiers from different parts of the United States persisted once in Europe, pitting northerners against southerners but also easterners against westerners. Emmet Britton, from California with the 363rd Regiment, wrote home disdainfully of being forced to bunk with signals officers from the East Coast on July 28, 1918:

“After five minutes I told them all to go to h—l and walked out hearing one of them say, ‘he must be one of those rough persons from that Western camp.” I turned around and told him he was ‘— right.’ Since then three other doughboys have joined me in misery and we are down in one corner, and the rest of the barracks have declared an armistice, but will have nothing to do with us—which just suits as, as they are all from the eastern states and don’t talk our talk.”

Overall, many diaries and letters home written by American soldiers and civilians, while acknowledging the horrors of war, express positive feelings about the conflict and their own roles in it, probably reflecting the fact that their participation was recent enough to retain the sense of novelty and adventure which had long ago worn off for European troops. Bowerman wrote on June 28, 1918:

“Say what you will, and admitting that war is a terrible thing, it still has its compensations for those who live. What has the war done for me? This—I have traveled in a ‘far country’; I have partially learned another language; I have met all manners and breeds of men and have learned true human values … I am living in a time when history is being made and am doing my infinitesimal ‘bit’ to help make it.”

Similarly, Mildred Aldrich, the American author retired in France who had endured four years of war (albeit as a civilian), expressed a common sentiment that the war, for all its misery, had led to a heightened appreciation of existence among those who managed to survive. “It is a great disaster. Of course it is,” she wrote. “But we are all terribly alive.”

PERILOUS CROSSINGS

As more and more Americans arrived in France, with monthly embarkations at U.S. ports peaking in July 1918 at 308,350, millions of young American men (and tens of thousands of young women volunteering as nurses, drivers, telephone operators, or canteen workers) had their first experience of what was, in prewar years, a literal rite of passage: the ocean journey to Europe. Now, though, there was nothing glamorous about it, as the specter of German U-boat warfare stalked the Atlantic.

Shipping net losses, World War I
Erik Sass

True, the Allies were making significant progress in the battle against the undersea scourge. A wide range of measures had helped turn the tide against German U-boats, including the implementation of the convoy system, with groups of troop and cargo transports heavily guarded by Allied warships and airships, which employed evasive tactics such as sudden, unpredictable shifts in direction. Other methods included increased patrols, submarine nets, and minefields to make key chokepoints impassable to subs, most notably in the Dover Strait at the eastern end of the English Channel; new technology like hydrophones and depth charges; and more controversial, unproven measures like “dazzle” camouflage, intended to confuse enemy U-boat commanders observing surface ships through periscopes (below, the U.S. transport Leviathan).

U.S.S. Leviathan in dazzle camouflage, WWI
Naval History and Heritage Command, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Thanks to this piecemeal strategy (below, an Allied convoy) and massive industrial mobilization, by the second quarter of 1918, greatly expanded American and British shipbuilding outweighed the total tonnage lost to U-boats, and the margin soared in the second half of the year. On July 4 alone, American shipyards launched an incredible 500,000 tons of new shipping (although much of this was a propaganda exercise organized with help from the U.S. Committee of Public Information, with prior launchings delayed and a large number of renovated ships included to reach the impressive total).

Convoy approaching Brest, WWI
Robert W. Neeser, U.S. Navy, U.S. Navy Historical Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, Allied shipping was still under serious threat. Available British merchant tonnage was almost 5 million tons below its pre-war figure, while the French merchant fleet was down by a million tons and Italy’s merchant fleet, a key component in the Mediterranean shipping network, had lost a third of its total.

U.S. merchant marines in Europe, WWI
Erik Sass

These losses were somewhat offset by the confiscation of Central Powers vessels, the questionably legal requisitioning of neutral shipping from countries like the Netherlands; and America’s sprawling shipbuilding program. But the fact remained that the world’s total stock of available shipping was about 5 million tons lower in 1918 than 1915, a 10 percent decline—enough to massively impair the global logistics system in wartime, as many ships were forced to return from the warzone “in ballast,” contributing to overall inefficiency.

World merchant marine tonnage, WWI

At the same time, the Germans remained committed to an aggressive U-boat strategy to the end, in hopes of disrupting the transportation of American troops to the battlefields of France as well as deepening material privation among soldiers and civilians alike in Britain and France. As noted, the direst phase for the Allies had now passed, but U-boat production rose steadily into the last months of the war, reflecting Germany’s undiminished industrial might, meaning that the German U-boat fleet was at its largest in the final months of the war, with 177 in service in September 1918 compared to 166 a year before.

WWI submarine production
Erik Sass

Thus, the Atlantic crossing, usually a romantic experience or tedious necessity before the war, was nerve-wracking and perilous to the very end of the war (below, German submarine U-38, commanded by Wilhelm Canaris, later head of German military intelligence in the Second World War). By 1918 passenger ships had fallen under the same military discipline as troop transports, beginning with strict secrecy surrounding boarding and time of departure, to frustrate enemy spies believed to be reporting sailings to Berlin or directly to the U-boats via wireless—but they didn’t always enjoy the protection of the convoy system. William Edgar, an American trade journalist visiting Britain, remembered boarding ship in an unnamed American port in summer 1918:

“A hot night at an Atlantic port, with a violent thunderstorm preceding it, which failed to cool the air … It is no longer easy to embark on an Atlantic liner; all sorts of formalities must be complied with before one gains access to the ship. The place of embarkation is very quiet, and no friends are permitted to come down to say good-bye; they are not even told the ship’s name. Once aboard, it is impossible to return ashore … No one knows just when it will sail; there is an air of secrecy and mystery over the whole proceeding.”

German U-boat U38, World War I
Oberleutnant zur See Hans Wendlandt, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Edgar then reported the ambient anxiety aboard ship as it raced at top speed, unaccompanied, across the Atlantic:

“By night the suspense becomes more acute, for the preoccupation of daily pursuits is absent. All are ordered below early, and the long evenings begin. The ports are painted black inside and out, and are closed when sunset comes; not a ray of light is permitted to escape from the ship to mark her course for the watchful and dreaded enemy. Below, in the brightness of one’s cabin, it is very still and silent; the muffled throb of the engines if felt and dimly heard … The ship is a hunted fugitive on the face of the waters, ever pursued from beneath.”

Most passengers necessarily adopted a somewhat fatalistic attitude and found that there were still things to enjoy in the ocean voyage, including the beauty of nature. Heber Blankenhorn, an American intelligence officer, described crossing the Atlantic in July 1918:

“I have seen stars overhead as I slept on deck and enjoyed magnificent sunrises. A deal of routine eats up our time, and brainless matters like sleep, meals, [and] drills consume the days. The ship at night rides like a great ghost, without a ray of light; stairs and companions are blind dark, with here and there an eerie purplish bulb to mark corners, but giving no light.”

U.S.S. President Lincoln, WWI
U.S. Naval Historical Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The feelings of anxiety were certainly justified. Although the number of ships sunk was dropping, with dozens of U-boats at sea at any one time, a significant proportion of ships were still sent to the bottom, including some protected by convoys. Edouard Isaacs, a U.S. Navy officer captured by the German submarine U-90, recalled the sinking of the U.S.S. President Lincoln (a requisitioned German passenger liner, above) on May 31, 1918:

“We were finishing breakfast. Two bells had just struck. Suddenly the ship was rocked by a double explosion, the second following the first with scarcely a perceptible interval between … As I ran aft another explosion shook the ship. The first two had been forward, but this one was aft directly in my path. The force of the explosion crushed in No. 12 lifeboat and threw it up on deck not 10 feet from where I stood, but only showered me with water … At 10 minutes past nine I received the report that holds No. 5 and No. 6 were flooded and the water approaching No. 1 deck. I reported this over the telephone to the captain, who ordered me to abandon ship. At 9:15 all hands aft were off the ship in lifeboats and on rafts. The main deck was then within a few inches of the sea … In fact some waves were already washing over the deck … At 9:30 we were well clear, and the old ship, turning over gently to starboard, put her nose in the air and went down. As the waters closed over her we rose and gave three cheers for the President Lincoln.”

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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12 Facts About Born on the Fourth of July
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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

The effects of the Vietnam War reverberated for years after it ended, both in the lives of the people who'd fought or lost loved ones and in our popular entertainment. One man forever changed by the war was Oliver Stone, the maverick director who served as an Army infantryman from 1967 to 1968 and subsequently made three movies set in 'Nam: Platoon (1986) won him a Best Director Oscar; Heaven & Earth (1993) fizzled with critics and audiences; but in between was Born on the Fourth of July (1989), a star-spangled Tom Cruise vehicle that earned Stone another Oscar and Cruise his first Best Actor nomination. Here are a dozen items of interest about this turning point in both men’s careers.

1. AL PACINO ALMOST PLAYED RON KOVIC.

This was in 1978, when Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic first wrote the screenplay based on Kovic's 1976 book. William Friedkin (The Exorcist) was going to direct it; he dropped out and was replaced by TV director Dan Petrie; and then, less than a week before shooting was set to begin, the German financiers behind the project got cold feet and pulled out. Stone later said that while Pacino would have been great, he had qualms about the then-38-year-old actor being too old for the part. (Tom Cruise was 27 when he played the role.)

2. KOVIC HAS A SILENT CAMEO.

Ron Kovic in 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

He can be seen in the parade at the beginning of the film, playing the wheelchair-bound soldier who flinches at the sound of firecrackers. 

3. CHARLIE SHEEN'S FEELINGS WERE HURT.

Charlie Sheen, who had starred in Stone's previous Vietnam blockbuster, Platoon, believed Stone was going to cast him in Born on the Fourth of July, too, and said (in 2011) that Stone had flat-out told him the part was his. When Cruise was cast instead, Sheen heard the news not from Stone but from his own brother, Emilio Estevez. Sheen said he was "hurt ... I wouldn't have cared if Oliver had called me personally, based on what we'd been through." Stone didn't respond to Sheen's claim, but news outlets in 1989 reported that Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage had also been considered for the role. 

4. THEY CONSIDERED ACTUALLY PARALYZING TOM CRUISE.

Stone found a nerve agent that would paralyze Cruise for a few days, and Cruise was open to the idea of using it. But the studio's insurance company—spoil sports—nixed it.  

5. CRUISE PREPARED FOR THE ROLE BY USING A WHEELCHAIR FOR A WHILE.

Wanting to relate to Kovic's experience as much as possible, Cruise got himself a wheelchair and role-played for weeks, even staying "in character" when doing media interviews and going to studio meetings. He also accompanied Kovic on public outings to see how a pair of paraplegics were treated. (They were once asked to leave a store because their wheelchairs were leaving marks on the floor.) 

6. VIETNAM WAS THE PHILIPPINES AND LONG ISLAND WAS DALLAS.

Shooting on location in Vietnam wasn't an option (U.S.-Vietnamese relations were still a bit frosty), so Stone used the Philippines as a stand-in. (That's where the Mexico scenes were shot, too.) As for the scenes set in Ron's Long Island hometown and at the Republican convention in Miami, those were all shot in Dallas—not far from places Stone would soon revisit to make JFK

7. KOVIC WAS SO MOVED BY THE FILM HE GAVE CRUISE HIS BRONZE STAR.

Kovic had been skeptical when Cruise was first cast, but was soon won over by the actor's commitment to the role and his sincerity. When the film was finished, Kovic gave Cruise his Bronze Star as a token of his admiration. 

8. UNIVERSAL PAID $500,000 TO MAKE ONE SCENE BIGGER.

Tom Cruise in 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

The film ends at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, with Ron about to give a speech. After seeing a rough cut of the movie, Universal ordered that the scene be re-shot with a larger crowd—6000 extras instead of the 600 Stone had used. It cost $500,000, but was accomplished in one day at L.A.'s Forum arena. 

9. STONE LATER APOLOGIZED TO A POLICE DEPARTMENT.

In the film, Ron is shown being beaten up and arrested at an anti-war demonstration in Syracuse, New York. In real life, Kovic had not attended that event, which was peaceful and was not broken up by police (though others were; Stone had consolidated several incidents into one). After complaints from the Syracuse Police Department, Stone reportedly sent a letter of apology in March 1990. 

10. KOVIC'S VISIT TO THE FAMILY OF THE SOLDIER HE KILLED WAS FICTIONAL.

One of the most emotional sequences in the film is when Kovic travels to Georgia to meet the parents and widow of the soldier he accidentally killed in Vietnam. In real life, though Kovic expressed his remorse to the family publicly in his book, he never met them. Apologizing via a memoir isn't very cinematic, though, so Stone and Kovic invented a face-to-face scene. 

11. STONE AND CRUISE WORKED FOR NEXT TO NOTHING.

The director and star were both so enthusiastic about the film that they agreed to keep production costs low by forgoing their usual high salaries (Cruise's especially) in exchange for a percentage of the profits. It paid off. The film cost about $18 million to make and grossed $161 million worldwide. 

12. ITS TELEVISION DEBUT WAS DELAYED BY A REAL WAR.

Tom Cruise and Willem Dafoe in 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

As you can imagine, it took a lot of work to make Born on the Fourth of July suitable for broadcast on network television. CBS had a version ready to air in early 1991, barely a year after the film's theatrical debut, but called it off because of the impending Persian Gulf War. It finally aired in January 1992. 

Additional Sources: Oliver Stone's DVD commentary "Cruise at the Crossroads," Rolling Stone 

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