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The Miracle on the Marne

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 142nd installment in the series.

September 5-12, 1914: The Miracle on the Marne

The First Battle of the Marne was the first major turning point in the war on the Western Front—the moment at which the German tide, rising relentlessly in the first weeks of the war with the conquest of Belgium and northern France, finally crested and broke, with the Germans forced into hasty retreat. There’s no question the “Miracle on the Marne” saved France and the Allied causebut neither it nor the dramatic battles which followed in the fall of 1914 were truly decisive, as they left the Germans in control of Belgium and most of France’s industrial resources, foreshadowing a long, drawn-out conflict.

The End of the Great Retreat

As French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s Plan XVII met with resounding defeat at the hands of the German left wing and center in the Battle of the Frontiers, the German right wing, consisting of the First, Second, and Third Armies, surged through Belgium, occupying the capital Brussels on August 20 and the key fortress city of Namur on August 25. From August 21 to 23, the German right wing slammed into the French Fifth Army and British Expeditionary Force at Charleroi and Mons, sending the vastly outnumbered Allies reeling back into northern France (but paying a steep price for these gains).

This was the beginning of the Great Retreat—two excruciating weeks from August 24 to September 5 when French and British troops fell back 150 miles in front of the onrushing Germans, through forced marches punctuated by desperate rearguard actions by the BEF at Le Cateau on August 26 and the French Fifth Army at St. Quentin-Guise on August 29. As the supply system broke down, the retreat became one unending nightmare of hunger, exhaustion, heat, and dust. Private Frank Richards of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers recalled: “Bread we never saw; a man’s daily rations were four army biscuits, a pound tin of bully beef and a small portion of tea and sugar… We never knew what it was to have our equipment off and even at night when we sometimes got down in a field for an all-night’s rest were not allowed to take it off.” Christian de Mallet, a French cavalry trooper, described similar conditions: “The heat was suffocating. The exhausted men, covered with a layer of black dust adherent from sweat, looked like devils… The air was burning; thirst was intolerable, and there was no possibility of procuring a drop of water.”

With the retreating armies came hordes of terrified refugees seeking safety to the south, many heading for Paris. Charles Inman Barnard described the scene in the French capital: “I saw a train pull slowly into the Gare du Nord laden with about fifteen hundred peasants—old men, women, children—encumbered with bags, boxes, bundles, fowls, and provisions of various kinds. The station is strewn with straw, on which country folk fleeing from the Germans are soundly sleeping for the first time in many days.”

While some refugees arrived, many more were leaving, as thousands of Parisians fled the French capital for the countryside. On September 1 an attaché with the American embassy in Paris, Eric Fisher Wood, wrote in his diary:

Panic conditions of the most pronounced order exist today. Everyone seems possessed with the single idea of escaping from Paris. A million people must be madly trying to leave at the present moment. There are runs on all the banks. The streets are crowded with hurrying people whose faces wear expressions of nervous fright. The railroad stations are packed with tightly jammed mobs in which people and luggage form one inextricable, suffocating, hopeless jumble.

The French government itself packed up and headed for Bordeaux on September 2, and that same day the Paris stock exchange closed and the Bank of France also moved all its key assets to Bordeaux, including gold reserves of around four billion francs, or $800 million in contemporary dollars. The new military governor of Paris, General Joseph Gallieni, ordered military engineers to work round the clock to complete entrenchments and other fortifications around the capital—but the city itself was eerily deserted. An American journalist, Frederick Palmer, described the strange sights of Paris dark and abandoned:

You might walk the length of the Champs Elysees without meeting a vehicle or more than two or three pedestrians. The avenues were all your own… The moonlight threw the Arc de Triomphe in exaggerated spectral relief, sprinkled the leaves of the long rows of trees, glistened on the upsweep of the broad pavements, gleamed on the Seine. Paris was majestic…

And still the retreat continued, amid bitter recriminations between French and British commanders over failures, both imagined and real, on both sides of the troubled alliance. Field Marshal Sir John French, the commander of the BEF, blamed the French for withdrawing without warning during the battles of Mons and Charleroi, and repeatedly (some might say petulantly) refused to slow the BEF’s withdrawal or coordinate its movements with the neighboring French Fifth and Sixth Armies—which in turn enraged French chief of staff Joseph Joffre, who also criticized French’s decision to evacuate the main British base at Le Havre as hasty and needlessly demoralizing. To be fair, by this point even one of French’s own commanders, Douglas Haig, thought he was “quite unfit for high command in time of crisis.”

If there was a silver lining in all this, it was the fact that as the Allied armies retreated their pursuers were forced to make the same exhausting round-the-clock marches, and German troops were also on the point of collapse. On September 2, an officer in the German First Army confided in his diary that “Our men are done up,” and Julius Koettgen, a German infantryman, recalled growing discontent in the ranks:

We had to march on and on. The captain told us we had been ordered to press the fleeing enemy as hard as possible. He was answered by a disapproving murmur from the whole section. For long days and nights we had been on our legs, had murdered like savages, had had neither opportunity nor possibility to eat or rest, and now they asked us worn-out men to conduct an obstinate pursuit.

Meanwhile the German generals were just as fractious as the Allied commanders. Alexander von Kluck, the commander of the German First Army, disdained Karl von Bülow, commander of the Second Army, as a washed up old man and resented his repeated requests for protection against threats to Second Army’s right flank. For his part Bülow viewed Kluck as a selfish, overly ambitious, unreliable prima donna. Max von Hausen, commander of the Third Army, was a Saxon who disliked both Kluck and Bülow as stereotypical Prussian martinets. Furthermore none of them felt particularly obliged to heed instructions from chief of general staff Helmuth von Moltke, viewed as out of touch with the situation back at headquarters in Luxembourg. Poor communications between armies on the move only served to exacerbate their disagreements.

On September 2, von Kluck disregarded an order from Moltke to fall back to protect Second Army’s flank, instead deciding to drop First Army’s pursuit of the fleeing BEF and head southeast in hopes of finishing off the French Fifth Army, which had barely escaped destruction by the German Second Army twice in recent weeks. By the evening of September 3 the First Army had arrived at the River Marne, and Captain Walter Bloem described the scene of incongruous beauty which greeted German troops: “The sun was beginning to set, when suddenly, spread out at our feet, was a picture of indescribable loveliness: the valley of the Marne… The sun had sunk into a misty haze of deepest gold. The whole valley, steeped in the perfect stillness of a summer evening, shimmered in the golden light. Could this be war?” But there was also a growing sense of unease in the exhausted German ranks:

To any of us who had not yet noticed it, the events of the past days must have shown how increasingly unpleasant the situation was becoming. We had, indeed, achieved marvels, driving the enemy out of the whole of Belgium and a great part of Northern France, nevertheless we ourselves were getting farther and farther away from home with ever-lengthening communications, while more and more enemy were now appearing on our front…

Indeed, following the defeats of August the unflappable Joffre made expert use of the French railways and dense road network around Paris to transfer thousands of troops from the eastern frontier with Germany to form the new Sixth Army under Michel-Joseph Maunoury north of Paris, while also cobbling together a new Ninth Army under the aggressive Ferdinand Foch with troops drawn from the retreating Third and Fourth Armies – in effect adding two new pieces to the chess board. Meanwhile Joffre, never shy about firing subordinates he considered ineffective, also replaced the pessimistic head of Fifth Army, Charles Lanrezac, with one of his own corps commanders, Franchet d’Esperey (the hero of Charleroi, called “Desperate Frankie” by British colleagues who had a nickname for everyone).

Thanks to Joffre’s rapid redeployment of troops, by the time the Germans arrived at the Marne the combined strength of the Allied forces facing them—composed, from east to west, of the French Third, Fourth, Ninth, and Fifth Armies along the Marne, the British Expeditionary Force near Melun, and the French Sixth Army guarding Paris—numbered over one million men, including 980,000 French and 70,000 British troops. The depleted German forces, consisting of the First through Fifth Armies, numbered just 850,000.

There was still one problem, as the BEF continued its headlong retreat and Sir John French bluntly informed Joffre on August 30 that the British wouldn’t be ready to fight for at least ten days, driving the French commander to despair. But the situation was finally remedied by some inter-Allied diplomacy: President Poincaré politely asked the British government to get their commander in line, and on September 1 Secretary of State for War Kitchener paid a personal visit to France, meeting French at the British Embassy in Paris, where he issued written orders to the stubborn Field Marshal. When the time came (and with a little more persuasion) the British would fight.

The Allies were also aided by continuing dissension among the German commanders. On September 3 von Kluck again disregarded a directive from Moltke and ordered First Army to cross the Marne ahead of Bülow’s Second Army—quite literally “ahead,” as First Army’s advance would cut southeast across Second Army’s line of march, forcing Bülow to halt for several days. As he chased the elusive French Fifth Army Kluck left just one army corps, under Hans von Gronau, to screen Paris to the west, unaware of the new French Sixth Army forming there. Then, on September 4, von Hausen decided, inexplicably, to let Third Army rest the following day, leaving it a full day’s march behind its neighbors and missing a chance to drive between Foch’s Ninth Army and the French Fourth Army under Langle de Cary.

Crucially, these decisions by von Kluck and Hausen both clashed with Moltke’s latest directive issued on the evening of September 4. German pilots flying reconnaissance missions had spotted columns of French troops heading north from Paris, reinforcing the new Sixth Army; Moltke, finally seeing the danger to the German right flank, ordered First and Second Armies to halt and assume defensive positions, while Third, Fourth and Fifth Armies would drive forward against the French center, weakened by Joffre’s redeployments. But the order arrived too late.

The Battle of the Marne

In the first days of September Joffre and Gallieni received a series of reports confirming that the German First Army was proceeding southeast, past Paris, in pursuit of the French Fifth Army, leaving its right flank open to attack by the new French Sixth Army. On the evening of September 4, d’Esperey said that despite its recent defeats Fifth Army was ready to attack, and Joffre decided that the time had finally come to stop retreating and take the offensive. The next day, September 5, Joffre visited Sir John French and after a melodramatic speech—concluding “the honour of England is at stake!”—secured a promise that the BEF would join the French counterattack (below, British cavalry advance to the Marne). The attack, Joffre said, would begin September 6.

In fact, it was already underway. On the morning of September 5, the French Sixth Army under Maunoury began marching east in preparation for the general attack planned for the following day—and shortly before noon ran smack into the German IV Reserve Corps under Hans von Gronau, left by von Kluck to guard his right flank along the River Ourcq, a northern tributary of the Marne. An incredibly violent but inconclusive clash ensued, as Gronau’s force of 22,800 men fought desperately to hold off Maunoury’s 150,000. German field artillery inflicted heavy losses, but the gun crews paid a heavy price as the deadly French 75-mm field pieces responded in kind.

At the end of the day, Gronau held his ground on a ridge above the Ourcq—but more importantly, the battle alerted von Kluck to the danger on his right flank, giving him an opportunity to rush reinforcements to face the French Sixth Army (where Moltke and Bülow had wanted them all along). Around midnight of September 5 he ordered two army corps located along the Grand Morin, a southern tributary of the Marne, to march northwest to a position near the town of Meaux on the Marne—beginning to open a gap in the German lines.

Beginning on the morning of September 6, the two army corps withdrawn by Kluck marched north all day to reinforce the single corps facing the French Sixth Army along the Ourcq, where they helped hold off the French for a second day amid fierce fighting that devastated the area around Meaux. According to Bloem, ordinary German soldiers understood that the change in direction was bad news:

The sun blazed down on us, the heat intensely oppressive, and perhaps even more oppressive the thought of a terrible, hideous possibility. Forwards, forwards, was the order; but weren’t we actually going just a little backwards!... To the north… a battle was being fought. The realization of all that this meant was enough to stagger the most courageous heart.

Meanwhile Mildred Aldrich, a retired American authoress living in a small village east of Paris, saw part of the Battle of the Ourcq on September 6, including the destruction of numerous small villages caught in the crossfire:

The sun was setting. For two hours we saw [the shells] rise, descend, explode. Then a little smoke would rise from one hamlet, then from another; then a tiny flame – hardly more than a spark – would be visible; and by dark the whole plain was on fire… There were long lines of grain stacks and mills stretching along the plain. One by one they took fire, until, by ten o'clock, they stood like a procession of huge torches across my beloved panorama.

Elsewhere on September 6, to the south the BEF and French Fifth Army under d’Esperey were advancing against the two remaining German corps holding the junction between First and Second Army along the Grand Morin and Petit Morin, two southern tributaries of the Marne, and to the east the French Ninth Army under Foch fell back before a fierce offensive by the German Second Army under Bülow across the headwaters of the Petit Morin in the Marshes of St. Gond (an unusual battlefield as the marshes, measuring about two miles wide by 12 miles long, could only be crossed via four relatively narrow causeways).

In short the Battle of the Marne was actually three separate but interrelated battles—one on the Ourcq, one on the “Deux Morins,” and one on the Marshes of St. Gond. While a German breakthrough in any of these places could easily have spelled disaster for France, the strategic pivot of the battle was always the confrontation on the Ourcq, where the German First Army posed a direct threat to Paris and the French Sixth Army, conversely, threatened to roll up the German right wing.

On September 7, von Kluck gambled everything on a decisive victory over French Sixth Army. After receiving reports that the BEF was advancing slowly toward the gap between First and Second Armies, shortly before noon he ordered two more corps to march north for an all-out attack on Sixth Army, in the hopes of crushing the French before the British were close enough to threaten the junction with Bülow’s Second Army.

Unfortunately for the Germans, von Kluck didn’t realize that the previous night Bülow had already ordered these corps (which Second Army currently shared First Army) to fall back along with his own right wing, as part his own effort to crush Foch’s Ninth Army on the St. Gond Marshes with assistance from Hausen’s Third Army. In other words the generals were pursuing two separate, conflicting plans, and Kluck’s order now superseded Bülow’s, so the two corps continued to their new destination. The result of these near-simultaneous moves, which both generals failed to communicate to each other, was a 30-mile gap in the German lines. In the days to come this gap would be their undoing.

In the near term, however, von Kluck’s gamble almost paid off: amid fierce fighting all along the Marne, on September 7 First Army sent Maunoury’s cavalry reeling back, and the situation looked grim for the Allies. Thus, Joffre and Gallieni focused all their efforts on strengthening Sixth Army on the Ourcq to defend against First Army’s attacks.

This was the origin of the famous “taxis of the Marne” episode of September 7 and 8, when Gallieni commandeered around 600 Parisian taxis to rush reinforcements from Paris north to Sixth Army. This round-the-clock operation, carried out amid chaotic conditions over roads clogged with troops and supplies, managed to deliver perhaps 3000 troops to bolster Sixth Army’s northern flank. Recently some historians have questioned the true effectiveness and importance of the taxis to the outcome of the battle, as most of the reinforcements were actually delivered by train or truck, but the taxi-lift entered the mythology of the Marne as a symbol of civic participation and French fighting spirit.

For ordinary soldiers, the situation on the ground remained confused, to say the least. Paul Tuffrau, a French junio officer, described the chaotic fighting near the village of Barcy, north of Meaux:

I pick up a dead man’s weapon, slip on a cartridge belt and join the advancing troop – it is rather scattered and pushing forward in every direction, urged on by the bugles. What’s that I’m stepping on? The dead and wounded, friends and foes. Bullets fly past, then the brutal blast of artillery fire right in front of us. The charge tatters, stops… All around, behind piles of grain, men are lying down, shooting or just waiting. Through the haze, you can just make out the rise of a hillside. Is that the Marne?

As September 7 drew to a close, the scene along the Marne was apocalyptic. Wilson McNair described the destruction near Meaux, which

was lying almost in ruins, with the great shells lashing their hail of destruction upon its roofs and gardens. The green fields and the orchards near the river bank, where the fighting was fierce all day, are still at evening, but the orchards are strewn with dead, German dead and French dead lying side by side under the sky, their faces lit up by the far glow of the burning villages. What a scene truly of horror and wonder!

The Turning Point: September 8-9

After several days of fierce but inconclusive fighting from September 5 to 7, the turning point came on September 8-9 – but at first fortune seemed to favor the Germans.

Along the Ourcq the French Sixth Army renewed its attack on the German First Army’s right wing on September 8, but failed to make progress, while the Germans pushed back in the center, forcing Maunoury to fall back to defensive positions. To the east Hausen’s German Third Army, finally in place after its delayed arrival the day before, launched a surprise attack on the French Ninth Army across the Marshes of St. Gond, forcing back Foch’s right wing and inflicting heavy losses.

But the real action was taking place at the Deux Morins, where Franchet d’Esperey’s Fifth Army pushed back the right flank of Bülow’s Second Army, making it basically impossible for the Germans to close the 30-mile gap created the day before by Bülow and Kluck’s uncoordinated, conflicting moves. Even worse, after an embarrassing delay the BEF was finally on the scene, pushing ahead into the gap to the west of the French Fifth Army. Meeting no resistance, the British cautiously pushed forward over recently abandoned German positions along the two Morins, and reached the southern bank of the Marne by the evening of September 8.

The French Fifth Army’s success and the arrival of the BEF at the Marne threatened to completely unravel the German line, opening von Kluck’s First Army to attack from the rear. Back at the German headquarters in Luxembourg, Helmuth von Moltke, panicked and apparently suffered a nervous breakdown, losing his grip on events. His subordinates, now in crisis management mode, began to take over, and in the early morning of September 9 they dispatched a general staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, to tour the front, make an appraisal of the situation, and order a retreat if necessary.

The situation was dire: at Second Army headquarters, Bülow said his exhausted troops had been reduced to “cinders” by three days of hard fighting following weeks of forced marches, and laid the blame on Kluck for failing to protect his flank and generally keeping him in the dark about First Army’s movements. Although no records of the meeting were kept, it seems that Bülow and Hentsch together decided the time had come to make a strategic withdrawal (a move that was later harshly criticized by von Kluck, who at that point believed he was close to turning the flank of the French Sixth Army).

Over the next few days, from September 9 to 12, the German armies retreated in a not-so-orderly to the Aisne River, about 30 miles north of the Marne. For the exhausted and demoralized troops, it was a pilgrimage to despair. Julius Koettgen described the events of these days:

The roads became ever more densely crowded with retreating troops and trains; from all sides they came and wanted to use the main road that was also being used by us… Munition wagons raced past us, singly, without any organization. Order was no longer observed. Canteen and baggage wagons went past, and already a wild confusion arose… Night came upon us and it poured again in torrents. We lay on the ground and felt very cold. Our tired bodies no longer gave out any heat.

Meanwhile, the Allied troops who pursued them north encountered scenes of shocking carnage and devastation. Charles Inman Barnard recalled:

We came near to the villages… along the road from Meaux to Soissons… and found that the trenches dug by the Germans were filled with human corpses in thick, serried masses. Quicklime and straw had been thrown over them by the ton. Piles of bodies of men and of horses had been partially cremated in the most rudimentary fashion. The country seemed to be one endless charnel-house. The stench of the dead was appalling.

An anonymous British junior officer remembered “Whole trains of motor lorries that had been hastily burned and left by the roadside, and all sorts of vehicles with broken wheels,” and also noted that the Germans had looted all the wine and spirits they could lay their hands on, stealing from elegant chateaux and peasant dwellings alike: “The litter of bottles was appalling. There was a perfect wall of them for about a quarter of a mile.” Barnard echoed this description: “How thirsty the Germans were! The roads and fields and trenches were strewn with bottles, full or half-empty.”

When the Germans reached the Aisne they established advantageous positions on hills overlooking the river, and dug in with machine guns and heavy artillery, and the French and British soon did the same. Koettgen remembered the scene at dawn on September 11:

Slowly the mist began to disappear, and now we observed the French occupying positions some hundred yards in front of us. They had made themselves new positions during the night exactly as we had done. Immediately firing became lively on both sides. Our opponent left his trench and attempted an attack, but our great mass of machine guns literally mowed down his ranks… The French renewed their attack again and again, and when at noon we had beaten back eight assaults of that kind hundreds upon hundreds of dead Frenchmen were covering the ground between our trenches and theirs.

Trench warfare had begun.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Aidan Monaghan/AMC
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History
What AMC's The Terror Got Right (And Wrong) About the Franklin Expedition
Aidan Monaghan/AMC
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for The Terror. If you haven't finished the show, don't read further!

We know the outcome of Captain Crozier's battle with Tuunbaq in the AMC series The Terror, and that he chose (as some rumors have suggested) to live with the Inuit rather than return to London when he has the chance. Now, it's time for a post-mortem (sorry) of the show's historical highlights. While Dan Simmons, author of the book on which the show is based, created Lady Silence and her supernatural evil spirit—Tuunbaq definitely wasn't stalking the men of the Erebus and Terror back in 1847—much of the show is faithful to the actual events of the Franklin expedition, one of the most enduring mysteries in polar exploration. Here's a rundown of what The Terror got right, and where the show slipped up.

RIGHT: THE TERROR’S ARCTIC ATMOSPHERE

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and James Fitzjames
Capt. James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), left, and Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) survey the ice.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

Right off the bat, The Terror envelops viewers in an icy world that increasingly mirrors the crews’ isolation and desperation. In the first tragic scene, a sailor falls overboard into a sea of accurately rendered pancake ice. In another scene, Captain Francis Crozier sees a sun dog—a solar phenomenon caused by sunlight refracting through clouds of ice crystals, often witnessed by polar explorers. The officers' uniforms and caps are also recreated with authentic details. As the hopelessness of their predicament dawns on the officers and men, summer’s 24-hour daylight vanishes, replaced by the 24-hour darkness of winter. The imprisoned ships tilt with the pressure of the pack ice.

There were a few hiccups noticed by sharp-eyed viewers in the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group, however. Caulker's mate Cornelius Hickey has a fondness for cigarettes, but most sailors probably smoked pipes at the time, and definitely not inside the ship. (Good thing they had that fire hole bored into the ice!) And assistant surgeon Harry Goodsir’s technique with the Daguerrotype camera in the blind would have produced a terrible photo. His 20th-century stopwatch wouldn’t have helped.

WRONG: FRANKLIN’S BACK-UP PLAN

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and Capt. Francis Crozier
Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), right, tries to convince Sir John that they're going to need rescuing pretty soon.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

In a flashback in Episode 3, Sir John Franklin’s good friend Sir John Ross asks the soon-to-depart commander if the Admiralty had any plans for his rescue. When Franklin says one won’t be needed—since the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are the best-provisioned ships ever sent to the Arctic—Ross warns him that he’s being naïve. In real life, this conversation was much different, and it didn’t take place at the Admiralty.

Franklin and Ross knew firsthand how a well-provisioned expedition can become a fight for survival. (In Episode 6, Captain James Fitzjames hears the story of Ross’s disastrous Victory expedition from the Erebus's ice master Thomas Blanky, who was really there in 1829-1833.) Ross instead offered to rescue Franklin himself, and captained (at age 72!) a privately funded schooner in search of his lost friend in 1850. And because Ross and the Admiralty had had a major falling out decades before, Ross wouldn’t have been chatting with Franklin at the Admiralty's HQ in Episode 3, and he definitely wouldn’t have been there to hear Lady Jane Franklin’s plea for a search party in Episode 4.

Sir John Ross was the uncle of Sir James Clark Ross, whom we see in the first scene of Episode 1 and its replay, from a different point of view, at the end of Episode 10. In real life, Sir James was one of Crozier's closest friends.

WRONG (MAYBE): KILLER CANS

In a foreboding sign of things to come, Franklin removes a tiny blob of lead from his mouth while eating dinner with Fitzjames in the first episode. By Episode 4, the ships’ cooks are complaining that much of the canned meat is spoiled, and able seaman John Morfin shows up in Goodsir’s infirmary with a blackish line along his gums, an ominous sign of lead poisoning. To test that hypothesis, Goodsir feeds the monkey Jacko some of the canned meat, and then reveals his theory to the surgeon Stephen Stanley: The meat is contaminated with lead and the men have been eating it for more than two years.

The storyline is built upon a famous theory that is now in doubt. In the mid-1980s, forensic anthropologists found high levels of lead in Franklin crewmembers' remains. They suggested the source was poorly sealed food cans, and that lead poisoning led to the men’s deaths. But recent research has pointed to the Erebus’s and Terror’s unique water systems [PDF], which used lead pipes, as the primary source of contamination. And, a 2015 study compared lead content among seven crewmembers’ remains and found wide variation, suggesting some men may not have been debilitated.

RIGHT: SERIOUS SCURVY

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Goodsir and Young
Dr. Goodsir (Paul Ready) tries to save David Young (Alfie Kingsnorth).
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

David Young, the first fatality of The Terror, doesn’t show any signs of scurvy in Goodsir’s autopsy. But by the summer of 1848, the remaining crew camped on King William Island hasn’t eaten fresh meat in three years, and the Navy-issued lemon juice rations have either run out or lost potency. Signs of severe Vitamin C deficiency appear: Fitzjames’s old bullet wounds, which he boasted about at the officers' table in the first episode, begin to open up, and a rough-looking Lieutenant George Henry Hodgson loses a tooth as he chews the leather from his boot (a nod to Franklin’s awful 1819-1822 Arctic expedition) in Episode 9. The scenes match what most, though not all, historians and researchers now believe: that a grim combination of scurvy, starvation, exposure, and underlying illnesses spelled the end for Franklin’s men.

(VERY LIKELY) WRONG: FRANKLIN’S CAUSE OF DEATH

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and Tunnbaq
Tuunbaq takes a deadly swipe at Sir John.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

The terrifying scene in Episode 3 in which Tuunbaq mauls Franklin to death and shoves him down the fire hole is most likely not the way it actually happened. Historically speaking, just after the men abandon ship in April 1848, Crozier and Fitzjames updated the note left in the cairn the previous spring. They reported that “Sir John Franklin died on 11th June 1847”—just 19 days after Lieutenant Graham Gore and mate Charles Des Voeux had left the same paper behind on May 24, 1847 and reported the crews “all well.” Unfortunately, it’s the only record ever found about the expedition’s progress, and no one knows for sure how Franklin died or what happened to his body. Inuit oral histories collected by Franklin scholar Louie Kamookak suggest Franklin was buried under a flat stone somewhere on King William Island, but to date, no trace has been found.

RIGHT: THAT CRAZY CARNIVAL

The wild masquerade party in the middle of the bleak and frozen Arctic, which Fitzjames orders as a morale-booster for the men in Episode 6, may seem like a total anachronism. In real life, it was a time-honored tradition. (We don't know for sure if the Erebus and Terror had a carnival because no logbooks from the expedition have been found, but it's likely that they did.) In 1819-1820, Sir Edward Parry led the first polar expedition to purposefully overwinter in the Arctic. He worried about how the men would fare psychologically during the months of darkness and teeth-cracking cold, so he brought along trunks of theatrical costumes and launched the Royal Arctic Theatre, a fortnightly diversion for the officers and men to perform silly plays and musicals. It kept the men busy writing shows, practicing their parts, and building sets, which Parry thought was the key to staying sane. The scheme was such a success that subsequent expeditions kept the tradition going. But unlike in The Terror, the frivolities didn’t end in fiery conflagrations and mass casualties. 

(POSSIBLY) WRONG: HICKEY’S MURDEROUS MUTINY

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Cornelius Hickey
Mr. Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) cooks up a mutiny.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

In Episode 7, Hickey plans a mutiny and convinces enough of the desperate men to follow him, splitting the remaining officers and men into two groups and, in Episode 9, taking Crozier captive. Hickey also kidnaps Goodsir because, as the expedition’s sole remaining surgeon, he is the only one who knows how to wield a bone saw. We don’t know, though, if there was an actual mutiny among the Franklin survivors. The remains of some of Franklin's men were found in different locations, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate a breakdown of order. Smaller groups may have split off from the main group because they simply couldn’t march any farther or had decided to return to the ships. Despite the harsh conditions of service in the Royal Navy, mutinies were quite rare.

RIGHT: CANNIBALISM

Hickey’s followers, starving and desperate, dine on morsels of steward William Gibson in one of Episode 9’s most wrenching scenes with historical precedent. Hudson’s Bay Company trader John Rae discovered the truth about the Franklin expedition from interviews with Inuit in 1854, including testimony that the men resorted to cannibalism to survive. In his infamous letter to the Admiralty, he wrote, “from the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.” Victorian England refused to believe it—but Inuit testimony and forensic research [PDF] supported Rae’s account, finally revealing the expedition’s fate.

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15 Actors Who Could've Played Han Solo
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Before Harrison Ford (watch his audition tape here) and Alden Ehrenreich were cast as Han Solo in the Star Wars film franchise, a number of young and famous Hollywood actors had a shot at playing everyone’s favorite “stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerfherder.” Here are 15 of them.

1. AL PACINO

After the massive success of the first two The Godfather films, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino was the toast of Hollywood. He was given the script to Star Wars and was offered the Solo job, but turned it down to star in Sydney Pollack’s Bobby Deerfield instead.

“It was at that time in my career when I was offered everything,” Pacino told MTV in 2014. “I was in The Godfather. They didn’t care if I was right or wrong for the role, if I could act or not act. ‘He’s in The Godfather. Offer him everything!’ So they offered me this movie. And I remember not understanding it when I read it. Another missed opportunity!”

2. MILES TELLER

 Actor Miles Teller attends the 2018 DIRECTV NOW Super Saturday Night Concert at NOMADIC LIVE! at The Armory on February 3, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for DirecTV

Fresh off the success of Divergent and Whiplash in 2014, Miles Teller’s name appeared on the shortlist of young actors being considered to play the title role in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Believe it or not, he had never watched a single movie set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” before his audition with Lucasfilm.

“I had never even seen any of the original Star Wars movies until maybe a month or a couple weeks before my first audition because I was like, ‘I should check this out,'" Teller told MTV’s Josh Horowitz on the Happy Sad Confused podcast. “I just love Harrison Ford, I think that’s a great character. I love his brand, I mean so many guys would’ve played that part so wrong and he has humor at the right times.”

3. SYLVESTER STALLONE

Before he wrote and starred in Rocky, Sylvester Stallone met with George Lucas and auditioned for the part of Han Solo. He knew he wasn’t going to get the job based on the director’s ambivalent demeanor during his reading.

When asked about the audition in 2010, Stallone told Ain’t It Cool News in 2010, “It didn’t meet with much approval since when I stood in front of George Lucas he didn’t look at me once, obviously being very shy. Then I said ‘Well obviously I’m not the right type.’ but it all worked out for the best since I don’t look good in spandex holding a Ray gun.”

4. ANSEL ELGORT

 Ansel Elgort attends New York City Ballet 2018 Spring Gala at Lincoln Center on May 3, 2018 in New York City
Steven Ferdman, Getty Images

The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver star Ansel Elgort was one of the names on Lucasfilm’s shortlist of young actors for Solo. While he has the good looks to play the rugged space pirate, Elgort was relieved that Alden Ehrenreich was selected instead. 

“Yeah, I was pretty worried, honestly,” Elgort told The Huffington Post. “I was pretty worried that if I got it, I’d have to change my DJ name. So I’m relieved.” (Elgort is also a musician and singer with the DJ name of “Ansølo.” He publishes electronic dance music and remixes on Soundcloud under the pseudonym.)

5. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN

Before his breakout appearances in Annie Hall and The Deer Hunter, a struggling young actor named Christopher Walken auditioned for Han Solo in Star Wars. Although the role went to Ford in the end, Walken was reportedly Lucas’s second choice for the space smuggler.

6. DAVE FRANCO

After starring in hit comedies like Neighbors, Dave Franco auditioned for Lucasfilm. During pre-production in 2016, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller—who both also directed Franco in 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie—were set to direct Solo: A Star Wars Story. The pair left the project well into filming due to “creative differences.” Despite a strong audition, Franco ultimately didn’t get the role.

“I’m not good with impressions or anything like that,” Franco told MTV. “I think that’s the reason why it’s so hard to cast this role. Do they want someone to perfectly embody who Harrison Ford is, or do they want to go a completely different route? Do they want someone to look really similar to him? I don’t know, I think they’re struggling with that.”

7. KURT RUSSELL

During the mid-1970s, Kurt Russell auditioned for both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, but Lucas wasn’t sure he was right for either job. While the director was still making up his mind, Russell dropped out of the running altogether to be a series regular on a TV Western called The Quest instead.

“[I was] interviewing for the part of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo," Russell told USA Today. "On tape, it exists. I didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. Something about a Death Star and a Millennium Falcon. I was actually pretty [close], in the final running, but I needed to give an answer to ABC to do a western show. I asked George, ‘Do you think you’re gonna use me?’ He said, ‘I don’t know if I want to put you with him, or those two guys together.’ I got to go to work, so I did the western. Clearly, made the right choice.”

When later asked about his decision to work on The Quest, which lasted just one season, Russell told Vanity Fair: “I don’t have any regrets. As an actor you can’t dwell on those things or you’ll go crazy. Things happen for a reason and I’m happy how things turned out in my career. My life and career may have been different, maybe for better or for worse, if I did Star Wars, but you can’t focus on it. You move on.”

8. SCOTT EASTWOOD

 Scott Eastwood attends the 6th Annual Hilarity For Charity at The Hollywood Palladium on March 24, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Alberto E. Rodriguez, Getty Images

In 2016, Lucasfilm auditioned more than 2500 actors roughly between the ages of 20 and 25 for Solo. The production company wanted an actor who was young enough to grow with the character through multiple movies. The list was whittled down to just eight names after screen tests, with actor Scott Eastwood—son of Clint—among those in the running. Although he was a favorite with Star Wars fans, Eastwood was 29 years old at the time and the oldest actor on the shortlist.

9. ROBERT ENGLUND

Before he was known as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Robert Englund auditioned for Han Solo. While he didn’t land the gig, Englund took the script home with him, because he thought his roommate would be perfect for the role of Luke Skywalker—and he was right! Englund’s roommate at the time was Mark Hamill, who played the iconic role for more than 40 years, most recently in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

“At that time, Mark Hamill was always on my couch,” Englund told ForceMaterial.com. “So there he was, halfway through a six-pack, watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I went in and I said to him, ‘Look at these sides, I think you’re right for this, man. This character is like a space prince, and it’s George Lucas!' ... I was just saying, ‘Wow, what if you got to be in a George Lucas movie, Mark? You’re the kind of actor he loves!’ So he got on the phone to his agent and the rest is history.”

10. LOGAN LERMAN

After gaining critical and commercial success in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Fury, Logan Lerman was reportedly on Lucasfilm’s shortlist of young actors to play Solo. While he didn’t end up landing the gig, Lerman said of the role to MTV, “I don’t think I’d be intimidated. It would just be fun.”

11. JACK REYNOR

 Jack Reynor arriving at the 'Detroit' European Premiere at The Curzon Mayfair on August 16, 2017 in London, England
Tristan Fewings, Getty Images

While audiences might know him as the lead character in the Irish drama What Richard Did or as the love interest in Transformers: Age of Extinction, Irish actor Jack Reynor was on the shortlist for Solo, and was ultimately happy he didn’t get the gig.

“That Han Solo movie is going to be really tough,” Reynor told The Irish Times. “I think the guy who is doing it is a really good actor, but, for myself, I was afraid of it. I kept thinking: if you f**k this up you’ll ruin people’s childhoods. If it doesn’t turn out great, you won’t be forgiven. That’s a lot of responsibility. And even if it goes great, you’ll do it, people will know you only from that and that defines your career. That would be very difficult. For me, working on original material is very important.”

12. BILL MURRAY

While still on Saturday Night Live, it was rumored that Bill Murray was up for Han Solo in A New Hope. In 2015, while at San Diego Comic-Con, Murray addressed the nearly 40-year old rumors: “I don’t know if I was up for it. I can’t tell you for sure. But I am working out in hopes of getting this new thing,” he joked. “I’m doing a lot of swimming and pilates."

13. TARON EGERTON

 Taron Egerton attends the EE British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) nominees party at Kensington Palace on February 17, 2018 in London, England
Jeff Spicer, Getty Images

Welsh actor Taron Egerton, who starred in Kingsman: The Secret Service and its sequel, was reportedly one of the three names (alongside Reynor and Ehrenreich) on the final shortlist for Solo: A Star Wars Story. Like Reynor, Egerton admitted he was very apprehensive of the role.

“Roles of that level are always going to be life-changing,” Egerton told The Guardian in 2016. “I wouldn’t run into it blind. It would definitely be a shutting-a-door-behind-me moment. That is something that I’d be wary of.”

14. GLYNN TURMAN

Coming off his breakout success in Cooley High in 1975, actor Glynn Turman auditioned for Lucas—but he didn’t even realize he had auditioned for the part of Han Solo until he read about it in Dale Pollock’s book, Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, in 1983.

“In those days it said ‘black actor,’ ‘white actor,’ ‘Hispanic actor’ for every role, but it didn’t say either for the Han Solo part,” Glynn Turman told Empire Magazine in 2017. “It didn’t specify ‘black actor.’ I was rather pleased because I was just being called in as a talent. I remember George was very professional.” Turman must have impressed Lucas, as he was apparently considered for the role of Lando Calrissian as well.

“Later, I was approached for the role, in that same franchise, that [was given to] Billy Dee Williams,” Turman told Yahoo! Entertainment. “Handsome, swashbuckling, dashing Billy Dee. I hate him! Not true. Dear friend and a talented man. Lando Calrissian! That wouldn’t have fit me anyway. But it fits a Billy Dee Williams.”

15. EMORY COHEN

 Actor Emory Cohen attends the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival after party for Vincent N Roxxy at Black Market on April 19, 2016 in New York City
Cindy Ord, Getty Images for 2016 Tribeca Film Festival

In 2016, New York City-born actor Emory Cohen, a.k.a. “the cute guy from Brooklyn in Brooklyn,” was among the contenders to play Han Solo. "I read for it once," he later told The Daily Beast, and joked that, “They don’t even want me!”

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