John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain
John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain

WWI Centennial: Surprise Attack At Cambrai

John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain
John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 294th installment in the series.

November 20, 1917: Surprise Attack At Cambrai

By fall 1917 the basic pattern of attack on the Western Front was well established, with a huge artillery bombardment, sometimes lasting days or weeks, preceding a mass infantry assault across No Man’s Land—the model employed at Passchendaele. Then on November 20, 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai, the British tried something radically new: scrapping the lengthy artillery bombardment—which also warned the enemy an attack was coming—in favor of a stealthy surprise attack with tanks.

Since their debut at the Somme in 1916, the new wonder weapons had proved a little less wonderful than hoped—prone to frequent breakdowns, “ditching” or getting swamped in mud, and with limited range under the best of circumstances. However, a number of spectacular successes confirmed the temperamental vehicles’ potential in the right circumstances. Could new tactics, with massed tanks and no preparatory bombardment, deliver a breakthrough, ending the stasis of trench warfare?

With the British Expeditionary Force to the north exhausted after Passchendaele, it was left to General Julian Byng’s British Third Army, including Canadian and South African troops, to execute the giant live fire experiment. They would mount a surprise attack spearheaded by almost 400 tanks and two corps of infantry, using “infiltration” tactics similar to stormtroopers’. The attack targeted the town of Cambrai—a key supply hub for German forces holding the Hindenburg Line to the south.


Erik Sass

The initial attack was more successful than the British could have hoped: at 6 a.m. on November 20, 1917, hundreds of tanks began crossing no man’s land with six divisions of British infantry, supported by a simultaneous bombardment by just over 1000 artillery pieces of various sizes. The tanks cleared the way through barbed wire for columns of infantry who followed close behind, overrunning enemy trenches and surrounding strongpoints while the tanks pushed ahead. Meanwhile a smoke screen helped prevent the Germans from directing artillery fire on to the tanks. William Watson, a British tank officer, recalled:

In front of the wire, tanks in a ragged line were surging forward inexorably over the short down grass. Above and around them hung the blue-gray smoke of their exhausts. Each tank was followed by a bunch of Highlanders, some running forward from cover to cover, but most of them tramping steadily behind their tanks … Beyond the enemy trenches, the slopes from which the German gunners might have observed the advancing tanks were already enveloped in thick white smoke. The smoke-shells burst with a sheet of vivid red flame, pouring out blinding, suffocating clouds. It was as if flaring bonfires were burning behind a bank of white fog. Over all, innumerable aeroplanes were flying steadily to and fro. The enemy made little reply.

The sudden appearance of the tanks, emerging from the early morning mist, took many of the German defenders by surprise, surrendering to British infantry advancing close behind. Watson wrote:

Odd bunches of men were making their way across what had been No Man’s Land. A few, ridiculously few, wounded were coming back. Germans in twos and threes … were wandering confusedly towards us without escort, putting up their hand in tragic and amazed resignation, whenever they saw a Highlander. The news was magnificent. Our confidence had been justified. Everywhere we had overrun the first system and were pressing on.

By the end of the day the British attackers had advanced up to five miles in places—a huge win by the standards of the First World War. Watson described scenes in captured German positions well behind the front line:

We walked up the road, which in a few yards widened out. On either side were dug-outs, stores, and cook-houses. Cauldrons of coffee and soup were still on the fire. This regimental headquarters the enemy had defended desperately. The trench-boards were slippery with blood, and fifteen to twenty corpses, all Germans and all bayoneted, lay strewn about the road like drunken men.

However, the success at Cambrai also highlighted, once again, the shortcomings and basic limitations of tanks: as Watson noted, by the end of the first day four out of his 11 tanks were knocked out, three had ditched, and the remainder were short on gas.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Meanwhile the advantage of surprise had been used up and the Germans were rushing fresh troops to the battlefield to reinforce the beleaguered Second Army under General Georg von Marwitz. On November 23, the British continued the attack with an assault on Bourlon Wood, which they had identified as a key position, but already German resistance was stiffening. Watson left this impressionistic description of the British attack at Bourlon Wood on November 23:

At 10:30 a.m. the barrage fell and we could see it climb, like a living thing, through the wood and up the hillside, a rough line of smoke and flame. On the hillside to the left of the wood we could mark the course of the battle—the tanks with tiny flashes darting from their flanks—clumps of infantry following in little rushes—an officer running in front of his men, until suddenly he crumpled up and fell, as though some unseen hammer had struck him on the head—the men wavering in the face of machine-gun fire and then spreading out to surround the gun—the wounded staggering painfully down the hill, and the stretcher-bearers moving backwards and forwards in the wake of the attack—the aeroplanes skimming low along the hillside, and side-slipping to rake the enemy trenches with their guns.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Once again, tanks delivered some impressive gains but they remained vulnerable to unexpectedly unfavorable ground conditions, mechanical breakdowns, and fuel shortages. Of course, despite their heavy armor they were hardly immune to enemy fire, and a single lucky shot by field artillery could spell the end of a vehicle and its crew. Watson described one terrible scene:

Flames were coming from the rear of the tank, but its guns continued to fire and the tank continued to move. Suddenly the driver must have realised what was happening. The tank swung towards home. It was too late. Flames burst from the roof and the tank stopped, but the sponson doors never opened and the crew never came out … When I left my post half an hour later the tank was still burning.

By the end of November the British had chalked up major gains that threatened German logistics in northern France and jeopardized the integrity of the Hindenburg Line. But between hundreds of casualties, mechanical issues, and dwindling fuel, the tanks were largely a spent force—and there was no way the Germans were going to leave the British to enjoy their conquests. Even worse, the Third Army’s new positions formed a vulnerable salient, exposed to enemy counterattack on both flanks.

On November 30, 1917 the Germans unleashed their biggest attack (or rather counterattack) on British forces on the Western Front since 1915, with a crushing artillery bombardment followed by infantry advances against all fronts of the salient southwest of Cambrai. The German counterattack displayed their own tactical evolution with stormtroop assaults, employing trench mortars, grenades and machine guns, closely coordinated with artillery to break up barbed wire entanglements and force enemy infantry to take shelter.

Over subsequent German counterattacks from December 1-7, the recently captured salient collapsed under the weight of superior numbers, reflecting the determination of the German general staff, which was determined to contain the threat to the Hindenburg Line. Private William Reginald Dick described outnumbered British defenders preparing for a German counterattack at La Vacquerie, a village south of Cambrai, on December 3, 1917:

Around and above is a turmoil of noise; the mighty roar of dropping shells, the incessant rending crashes of the explosions, the scream and thud of whizz-bangs, and permeating all, the booming thunder of the guns. In this battering inferno of sound, we have to shout to make ourselves heard. The earth quivers continuously under the metallic flail. Across the shattered soil behind our position, a barrage is falling, a vast unbroken curtain of spouting bursts, spraying up earth, smoke and steel in a dark and furious barrier, half veiled by dense black fumes that writhe, heave, and trail upward in a mist of dirty grey … The Lewis-gun team beside me crouch below their deadly charge; it is tilted up ready to heave on the parapet; a drum is fixed for immediate firing.

The German infantry, led by stormtroopers, advanced boldly into a wall of British fire:

I see the wide waste of the shell-churned soil, the tattered wire, and, well over, a dark and far-flung line of gray-clad stormers; behind them others rising fast, apparently springing from the drab earth in knots and groups, spreading out, surging forward. Simultaneously from our trench bursts a great roar of fire. I fire with fiercely jerking bolt, round after round merged into the immense noise …

As the German infantry approached, firing and throwing grenades, the British defenders were forced to withdraw to another trench in the rear:

Suddenly I hear faintly a medley of confused shouts. I see the men on the fire-step firing fast again, and up the trench they are firing both to front and flank … I see bomb smoke above the parapet to the right, I see men leap back from the fire-step and merge with another little rush of consumed wounded. The platoon sergeant waves his arm urgently, “Down the trench!”

Of course the formidable German stormtrooper units suffered heavy casualties during the German counterattack as well, according to the German novelist Ernst Junger, who described grenade duels with British troops in adjoining trenches at Cambrai in his novel and memoir, Storm of Steel:

The British resisted manfully. Every traverse had to be fought for. The black balls of Mills bombs crossed in the air with our own long-handled grenades. Behind every traverse we captured, we found corpses or bodies still twitching. We killed each other, sight unseen. We too suffered losses. A piece of iron crashed to the ground next to the orderly, which the fellow was unable to avoid; and he collapsed to the ground, while his blood issued on to the clay from many wounds. We hurdled over his body, and charged forward.

Junger described the unique thrill, and terror, of combat with grenades:

One barely glanced at the crumpled body of one’s opponent; he was finished, and a new duel was commencing. The exchange of hand-grenades reminded me of fencing with foils; you needed to jump and stretch, almost as in a ballet. It’s the deadliest of duels, as it invariably ends with one or other of the participants being blown to smithereens. Or both.

During the course of the Battle of Cambrai, the Germans suffered around 45,000 casualties, compared to around 44,200 British. Today the Cambrai Memorial commemorates 7000 British and South African soldiers who died during the battle and were buried in unknown graves.

See the previous installment or all entries.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
WWI Centennial: July 4 in France
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
12 Facts About Born on the Fourth of July
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
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 

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER