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New York Tribune via the Library of Congress
New York Tribune via the Library of Congress

The Assassins Cross the Border

New York Tribune via the Library of Congress
New York Tribune via the Library of Congress

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 120th installment in the series.

May 28-June 3, 1914: “Militarism Run Stark Mad”

As May 1914 drew to a close, two years after the sinking of the Titanic the world was gripped by news of yet another horrific maritime disaster—but developments behind the scenes foreshadowed something even worse, as a high-ranking American diplomat warned President Wilson that Europe was on the brink of a terrible cataclysm … and Germany’s top general hoped for exactly that.

The Empress of Ireland Sinks

In the early morning hours of May 29, 1914, the RMS Empress of Ireland, a Canadian Pacific Steamship Company liner on the Quebec-Liverpool route, was traveling northeast in the St. Lawrence River towards the Gulf of St. Lawrence when she was rammed amid heavy fog by a Norwegian coal carrier, the Storstad, heading in the opposite direction. The Storstad survived, but the 570-foot-long Empress of Ireland sank within 15 minutes of the collision, which took place around 2 a.m.

The accident occurred just a few miles from the town of Rimouski, Quebec, in a busy waterway plied by other vessels which hurried to the rescue, but the toll was still staggering: out of a total manifest of 1477 passengers and crew, 1012 were drowned, including 134 children—putting the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the same grisly “1000+” hall of infamy as the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, when 1512 perished in the icy waters of the mid-Atlantic.

Like the Titanic, a disproportionate number of the victims in the Empress of Ireland sinking were poor “third class” passengers traveling below decks in “steerage"—and again, like the Titanic, many of these died needlessly, although for different reasons. The Empress of Ireland was provided with enough lifeboats—a positive legacy of the Titanic disaster—but half of these couldn’t be used be lowered as the ship listed to one side very quickly as it sank, probably because many passengers had opened their portholes to let in fresh air (in violation of regulations), allowing water to flood in even faster.

And like the Titanic, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland foreshadowed the terrible toll of the U-boat campaign against Allied and neutral shipping in the looming Great War, including the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, when 1198 passengers and crew lost their lives. And the Lusitania was just one of some 5000 Allied and neutral merchant vessels sunk by German and Austrian U-boats from 1914 to 1918, resulting in the deaths of around 15,000 crew and a similar number of civilian and military passengers.

“Militarism Run Stark Mad”

Wikimedia Commons

While the world was fixated on the Empress of Ireland sinking, behind the scenes diplomats were frantically trying to defuse European tensions amid mounting fears of a continental war. One of the most famous last-ditch attempts was the mission of Colonel Edward M. House (right), dispatched to Europe by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (left) as an unofficial envoy in the hopes of reconciling rivals before it was too late.

As the personal emissary of the leader of the great Republic across the sea, House was received with due respect but also understandable curiosity by European diplomats and politicians who wondered what, exactly, he hoped to achieve. The general goal was certainly ambitious: Wilson and House believed the U.S., with its economic strength and lack of direct involvement in European affairs, could use its leverage to help initiate a new era of trust-building in the Old World. But the details remained rather vague.

House suggested that the three “Anglo-Saxon” powers—Britain, the U.S., and Germany—ought to divide the world up into spheres of commercial influence, creating a new world order that would guarantee Germany her long-coveted “place in the sun.” Of course there were some problems with House’s plan, beyond his sketchy racial taxonomy (classifying Germany as “Anglo-Saxon” was a stretch, even by the flexible standards of racial theorists like Houston Stewart Chamberlain). For one thing it left out France and Russia, both established world powers, as well as Japan, the rising power in Asia.

But the real historical import of House’s mission was his insight into the current situation in Europe. His letter to Wilson from Berlin on May 29, 1914, was alarming indeed:

The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad. Unless someone acting for you can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. No one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies. Whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.

House’s prediction that the Triple Entente would start the war reflected American distrust of Britain and France, suspected of harboring colonial ambitions in the New World, and aversion to Russia, a despotic absolute monarchy. But House also raised red flags about Germany, warning British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey that in Berlin “the air seemed full of the clash of arms, of readiness to strike.”

“If Only Things Would Boil Over”

Wikimedia Commons

House was absolutely right, judging by a private remark made by the German chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, to a retired German diplomat, Baron Hermann von Eckardstein, just two days later, on June 1, 1914. “If only things would boil over,” Moltke remarked wistfully, adding: “We are ready; the sooner, the better for us.”

Moltke’s statement reflected the volatile mix of short-term confidence and long-term desperation prevailing in Berlin and Vienna. Just a few weeks before Moltke (left) had expressed the same view to the Austrian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf (right), in a private meeting at a hotel in the resort town of Karlsbad, Bohemia (now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic). Conrad and Moltke agreed in their basic assessment: Germany and Austria-Hungary were ready for war with Russia and France now, but before long the balance of forces would begin to tilt permanently against them, as Russia implemented its Great Military Program and France started to benefit from increased manpower thanks to the Three-Year Service Law. Moltke warned Conrad: “If we delay any longer, the chances of success will be diminished; as far as manpower is concerned we cannot enter into a competition with Russia.”

Similarly, a week after the Karlsbad meeting Moltke told Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow “there was no alternative to waging a preventive war in order to defeat the enemy as long as we could still more or less pass the test.” And Moltke’s deputy, General Georg von Waldersee, wrote that Germany had “no reason whatever to avoid” war and in fact a very good chance “to conduct a great European war quickly and victoriously.” The conclusion was inescapable: if Germany and Austria-Hungary were going to fight Russia and France, it had to happen soon. Of course a suitable pretext would have to be found.

The Assassins Cross the Border

Wikimedia Commons

Events were already in motion that would provide Moltke and Conrad the very excuse they were looking for. On May 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip and several of his co-conspirators set out from the Serbian capital of Belgrade on their final journey to Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province Bosnia, where they planned to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones.

Princip (left) and his fellow plotters, Nedeljko Čabrinović (center) and Trifun Grabež (right), had received training with pistols from Milan Ciganović, an employee of the Serbian state railroad and associate of Major Vojislav Tankosić, who in turn was the right-hand man to Dragutin Dimitrijević (codename Apis) the chief of Serbian military intelligence and leader of Unity or Death, otherwise known as the Black Hand.

Serbia’s civilian government wasn’t totally in the dark about the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand: by late May 1914, Prime Minister Nikola Pašić (who was currently locked in a power struggle with Dimitrijević) had caught wind of the conspiracy, perhaps via Ciganović, who apparently served as an informer for Pašić inside the Black Hand. Pašić was worried enough to inform his cabinet, and tried to disrupt the plot by ordering officers in the Serbian frontier guard to apprehend the plotters when they tried to cross the border into Austrian Bosnia. Pašić also instructed the Serbian ambassador to Vienna, Jovan Jovanović, to ask the Austrians to cancel the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo.

But both measures were doomed to fail. The Black Hand had already infiltrated the frontier guard and on the evening of May 31 to June 1, 1914, Princip and Grabež crossed the border with the help of Rade Grbić, an officer in the frontier guard who ferried them across the River Drina, at one point hiding them on an island popular with smugglers. They were followed not long after by Čabrinović, who crossed separately and met up with Princip and Grabež in the Bosnian town of Tuzla on June 3; all three finally arrived in Sarajevo on June 4.  Meanwhile it’s not clear if Jovanović—a radical Pan-Serb who may have been mixed up with the Black Hand himself—ever delivered the warning to Vienna as instructed. If he did, he was obviously ignored by the proud Austrians.

The Sarajevo murder would find Serbia totally unprepared for conflict: On June 2, 1914, Prime Minister Pašić and his cabinet resigned at the urging of Serbia’s King Peter, who was trying to forestall a military coup by Dimitrijević and his fellow ultranationalists, and on June 24 King Peter himself would step down in favor of Crown Prince Alexander. Meanwhile the Serbian army was in disarray, exhausted and overextended following hard fighting in the Balkan Wars. On June 2, 1914 the Greek military attaché in Belgrade asked Crown Prince Alexander about the possibility of Serbian help in another war against Ottoman Empire, and summarized the gloomy reply: “The Serbs lack everything. They have no ammunition, no artillery, no rifles. They have nothing at all and even if they were to mobilize, there would be no response to the call-up.”

“Calm and Quiet – Perfect Peace”

On June 3, 1914, Mildred Aldrich—an American journalist and writer who had just moved to the rural French village of Huiry, overlooking the River Marne—wrote to her friend explaining her decision to leave Paris: “I have come to feel the need of calm and quiet – perfect peace.” With modest pride she noted her village “is in that district between Paris and Meaux little known to the ordinary traveler… these are all little villages of which you may never have heard. No guidebook celebrates them.” A few months later Aldrich’s idyllic retreat would provide a ringside seat to the greatest battle in history.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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iStock

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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