The Birth of Trench Warfare

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 143rd installment in the series.

September 15, 1914: The Birth of Trench Warfare

Throughout the “war of movement,” which unfolded in August and September 1914 and reached its climax at the Battle of the Marne, there were already hints that the Great War would be very different from previous conflicts. As the German armies swept through Belgium and northern France, horrific massacres at Liege, Charleroi and Mons, Le Cateau, and the Marne highlighted the savage power of modern weapons like machine guns and fast repeating rifles. But it wasn’t until the Battle of the Aisne that the world witnessed the birth of a totally new form of warfare, shifting the balance of power from the attacker to the defender. 

After the Allies found a gap in the German line in the “Miracle on the Marne,” from September 10 to 12 the German armies withdrew about 30 miles north to the River Aisne, a tributary of the River Oise flowing roughly parallel to the Marne. The exhausted Allied troops could only manage a slow pursuit, giving the Germans time to regroup, and on reaching the north bank of the river they entrenched themselves in advantageous positions (see image above) along a ridge behind the Aisne called the Chemin des Dames (“Road of the Ladies,” named for a road built by Louis XV for his daughters).

For the French and British troops who stumbled upon the German positions it was like running into a brick wall, as they were subjected to withering fire from well-concealed machine guns and artillery as soon as the fog lifted on the morning of September 13. Heavy early autumn rains made the experience even more miserable for both sides. 

It didn’t help that the British Expeditionary Force was sorely lacking in machine guns and heavy artillery, the key weapons for the new form of warfare. For their part the French were well supplied with field artillery, in the form of the famous 75mm gun, but also lacked heavy artillery, reflecting the pre-war focus on bayonet charges. Meanwhile the Germans were well supplied with heavy artillery, which they used to break up enemy formations as well as destroying artillery and cutting communications and supply lines.

Arthur Anderson Martin, a doctor serving with the British Expeditionary Force, described the beginning of the German bombardment: 

Dawn was breaking and shafts of grey light and shadow were thrusting through the darkness. Then, like a clap of thunder, the German batteries opened up… The noise was deafening, ear-splitting, the bursting of shells, the mighty upheaval of earth where the shells struck, the falling trees, falling masonry, crashing church steeples, the rolling and bounding of stones from walls struck by these titanic masses of iron travelling at lightning speed, the concussion of the air, the screeching, whisking, and sighing of projectiles in their flight, made an awful scene of destruction… 

From September 13 to 28, around 3000 British troops were killed and another 10,500 wounded, while the French suffered an unknown (but very large) number of casualties. Now another horrifying aspect of the new warfare was revealed, as retreating troops were forced to leave their wounded comrades to suffer and die on the field of battle, and survivors on both sides were sickened by the smell of decomposing bodies. A few weeks later Irvin Cobb, a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post, met a German officer, who described

a stretch four miles long and half a mile wide that is literally carpeted with bodies of dead men.  They weren’t all dead at first. For two days and nights our men in the earthworks heard the cries of those who still lived, and the sound of them almost drove them mad.  There was no reaching the wounded, though, either from our lines or from the Allies’ lines.  Those who tried to reach them were themselves killed.  Now there are only dead out there – thousands of dead, I think.  And they have been there twenty days.

After a series of fruitless attempts to storm the German trenches, on September 14 the British commander, Field Marshal Sir John French, ordered the British Expeditionary Force to begin digging in, while to the east the French Fifth Army did the same. A second line of trenches soon came into being, running parallel with the German trenches and leaving a “no man’s land” a few hundred meters wide in between. In just a few days the strategic doctrine of the offensive, which had prevailed since the time of Napoleon, was rendered obsolete—although it took some time for generals on both sides to get the message. 

Although trench warfare was indeed a new phenomenon, some historians argue there were enough precedents that the generals should have seen it coming. During the Crimean War of 1853-1856, the famous “Charge of the Light Brigade” had shown the vulnerability of units advancing over open ground to field artillery, a lesson reinforced by the bloody defeat of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg in the American Civil War. Additionally, trenches had been used before in the American Civil War, the Boer War, and the Russo-Japanese War; the latter also saw the employment of machine guns and barbed wire entanglements. Finally a Polish banker, Jan Bloch, had synthesized recent developments in a book titled Is War Now Impossible?, published in 1898, arguing that modern weapons rendered attacks over open ground futile and predicting that war would become a stalemate between entrenched armies along a stationary front. 

But European generals, still wedded to the doctrine of the offensive, found reasons to dismiss these warnings. First of all they believed defensive field artillery would be neutralized by superior “counter-battery” fire, which would also break up entanglements, take out machine guns, and force defenders to keep their heads down, giving attacking infantry a chance to storm their positions. Meanwhile they dismissed Bloch’s writings, if they noticed them at all, as the musings of an eccentric (Jewish) amateur. Above all, they continued to put their faith in intangible qualities of “spirit” and “valor,” which would somehow allow attacking infantry to surmount trivial obstacles and decide the issue with their bayonets.

Needless to say, these expectations were not born out by the Battle of the Aisne, where officers “on the ground,” surveying acres of corpses through improvised periscopes, quickly recognized the futility of valor. However both sides kept up a steady harassing fire with artillery, which failed to produce any decisive change in the strategic situation, but did manage to sow terror in the opposing ranks. This revealed yet another tribulation of trench warfare, as victims were maimed or killed without warning, leaving their compatriots traumatized and demoralized. Men saw family members and lifelong friends blown to pieces, and knew they could be next. A German infantryman, Julius Koettgen, described one horrifying scene:

[S]uddenly the sergeant… was hit by a shell and torn to pieces, together with his horse. His own brother was watching all this. It was hard to tell what was passing through his mind. He was seen to quiver. That was all; then he stood motionless. Presently he went straight to the place of the catastrophe without heeding the shells that were striking everywhere, fetched the body of his brother and laid it down. Part of the left foot of the dead man was missing and nearly the whole right leg; a piece of shell as big as a fist stuck in his chest. He laid down his brother and hurried back to recover the missing limbs. He brought back the leg, but could not find the foot that had been torn off. 

Perhaps the most terrifying and disorienting part of the new warfare was the randomness of death: as the adversaries rained shells on each other sight unseen, the individual’s fate hung on tiny decisions whose outcome could never be predicted, encouraging an attitude of fatalism verging on nihilism. One anonymous British soldier described seeing an officer resting against a tree when “a large piece of shell casing … buried itself in the ground a few inches from his leg. The jagged piece was hot and heavy. ‘Good Heavens,’ [the officer] said to himself, what curious things Chance and Fate are. If I had stretched my leg out! Why didn't I?’” Similarly a French soldier, Maurice Genevieux, was saved when a bullet was deflected by part of his uniform: “But suppose the bullet had not struck the button, and my belt had not been precisely behind that button? Ah well, my friend, these are vain speculations.” 

By late September the feeling prevailing on both sides was sheer unalloyed misery, as supply shortages and unceasing rain left troops wet, cold and hungry when they weren’t cowering in fear. One anonymous French soldier wrote his mother from the Aisne:

It is suffering beyond what can be imagined. Three days and three nights without being able to do anything but tremble and moan, and yet, in spite of all, perfect service must be rendered. To sleep in a ditch full of water has no equivalent in Dante, but what can be said of the awakening, when one must watch for the moment to kill or to be killed! Above, the roar of the shells drowns the whistling of the wind. Every instant, firing. Then one crouches in the mud, and despair takes possession of one’s soul. When this torment came to an end I had such a nervous collapse that I wept without knowing why – late, useless tears.

Unsurprisingly, some men began to break under the strain, leading to desertion, which was ruthlessly suppressed by officers who feared any show of leniency might result in a total breakdown of authority and discipline. In all armies the standard punishment for a soldier abandoning his post during battle was execution by firing squad, generally after a brief trial with no legal advocate representing the accused (or no trial at all, in many cases). A British brigadier general, E.L. Spears, recalled a disturbing encounter between the French general Louis de Maud’huy and a deserter about to be executed at the Aisne: 

He asked what he had been condemned for. It was abandoning his post… The General then began to talk to the young man. Quite simply he explained discipline to him… He spoke of the necessity of example, how some could do their duty without prompting but others, less strong, had to know and understand the supreme cost of failure. He told the condemned man his crime was not venial, not low, and that he must die as an example, so that others should not fail. Surprisingly the wretch agreed, nodded his head… Finally de Maud’huy held out his hand: “Yours also is a way of dying for France…”

Meanwhile, generals on both sides, searching for a way to regain the initiative, turned their attention to the open ground of Picardy, the Pas de Calais, and Flanders, where there was still a chance of outflanking the enemy. Thus the Germans dissolved the old Sixth and Seventh Armies along the French frontier and formed new armies bearing the same numbers in the west, while leaving small army detachments (named Strantz, Falkenhausen and Gaede, for their commanders) to guard the border. Similarly, on the other side the French chief of the general staff, Joseph Joffre, formed a new Second Army north of Paris, leaving First Army and the small Army of the Vosges to guard the frontier with Germany.

With the formation of these new armies the stage was set for a series of attacks and counterattacks extending the line of battle north through France and Belgium all the way to the coast. The “Race to the Sea” was about to begin.

Austro-Hungarian Military Debacle 

As stalemate loomed on the Western Front, a thousand miles to the east Austria-Hungary was already teetering on the brink of military collapse following multiple defeats by Russian forces in the northeastern province of Austrian Galicia.

While the German Eighth Army destroyed the Russian First Army at Tannenberg in East Prussia, on the southern half of the front the fortunes of war were very different: from August 23 to September 11, 1914, the Russians mauled Hapsburg armies in the Battle of Galicia (actually four separate battles at Krasnik, Komarow, Gnila Lipa, and Rawa Ruska, the first two indecisive Austrian victories) and by mid-September the Austro-Hungarian troops were in a wholesale retreat. The Austrian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, withdrew the Second Army from Serbia to stem the tide but to no avail: the Russians captured the Galician capital of Lemberg and were soon within a day’s march of the Carpathian Mountains, threatening the empire’s heartland. 



Click to enlarge

The Hapsburg armies were further afflicted by the breakdown of supply lines, due to a combination of inadequate infrastructure in rural Galicia and sheer incompetence. Mina Macdonald, an Englishwoman caught in Hungary who volunteered at a hospital, noted: “Letters at this time… from the Galician front were very spiritless, and described a hopeless struggle against fearful odds. They had no munitions, they wrote, while the Russians lacked for nothing. The Austrians who had gone towards Lublin suffered terribly from want of food, and disease spread very rapidly among the troops.”

As on the Western Front, this opening “war of movement” on the Eastern Front resulted in huge numbers of casualties, with 250,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers killed or wounded and another 100,000 taken prisoner, versus Russian losses of 210,000 killed or wounded and 40,000 taken prisoner. In short the Austrians had already sacrificed almost half of their starting total of 800,000 troops—and while they could call up millions of trained reserves to replace them, none of the new troops would be of the same quality.

The Hapsburg defeats left the Germans no choice but to divert troops to prop up their feeble ally. On September 18, Hindenburg, the hero of Tannenberg, was named commander of the new Ninth Army being formed in Silesia, near Germany’s frontiers with Austria-Hungary and Russian Poland, with troops drawn from Eighth Army. The Germans also created a new army detachment composed of Landwehr (militia) troops under Remus von Woyrsch to guard the Polish frontier; the Woyrsch Corps, as it was called, would play an important role in the German offensives of 1915. On the other side the Russians were forming a new Tenth Army to fill the gap left by the destruction of Second Army, now slowly rebuilding itself in northern Poland. 

Although German aid gave Austria-Hungary a new lease on life, the truth was it would never recover from the massive losses inflicted in the first days of the war. Indeed it was around this time that Hindenburg’s brilliant chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff, supposedly expressed his contempt for the decaying empire: “Ally? Ha! We are shackled to a corpse!”

See the previous installment or all entries.

Netflix Is Testing Commercials, and Subscribers Aren't Happy

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iStock

Save the occasional "Are you still watching?" message popping up between episodes, it's possible to watch an entire Netflix series in one sitting with little to no distractions. Now, the streaming service is testing something that could upend that: As CNN reports, Netflix has quietly started sprinkling advertisements into its programming, something the subscription-based service has been able to avoid up to this point.

The promotional content Netflix is experimenting with differs from conventional cable commercials in some fundamental ways. The promos won't be advertising third-party brands, Netflix promises: Rather, they'll exclusively show off Netflix original content, like seriesGlow and Stranger Things (though one Reddit user did report seeing an ad for Better Call Saul, which Netflix licenses from AMC). And instead of inserting ads throughout the program, as some non-subscription streaming services do, Netflix will only include them at the end of some episodes with a "skip" button similar to the one that allows viewers to bypass a show's opening credits. And each promo subscribers see will be personalized based on their viewing habits, hopefully turning them on to new shows and not just annoying them in the middle of their binge-watching sessions.

Despite these assurances from Netflix, viewers aren't happy. Many customers have taken to social media threatening to cancel their service if the promos become the norm, which likely may not happen: They've only been shown to a select number of test viewers so far, and based on user response, Netflix may decide to pull the plug on the experiment.

The good news is that as long as the ads are still in the test phase, you can choose to opt out of them. Just go to Netflix.com/DoNotTest and toggle off the switch next to the words "Include me in tests and previews." Now you're ready to resume your binge-watching marathon without interruption.

[h/t CNN]

10 Things You Might Not Know About Columbo

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

For more than 40 years, Peter Falk entered living rooms around the world as Lieutenant Columbo, an unconventional L.A. homicide detective known for his ruffled raincoat and trademark cigar. The actor would go on to win four Emmys for the role, while the series itself remains a benchmark for television crime dramas. But if series creators William Link and Richard Levinson went with their initial choice, the iconic role of Columbo would have gone to a syrupy-smooth crooner rather than the inelegant Falk. Get familiar with one of TV's most unique heroes with facts about Columbo.

1. BING CROSBY WAS ORIGINALLY EYED FOR THE ROLE.

Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link's first choice to play their low-key detective was crooner Bing Crosby. Der Bingle loved the script and the character, but he feared that a TV series commitment would interfere with his true passion—golf. It was probably providential that Crosby turned the role down, since his death in 1977 occurred while the series was still a solid hit on NBC. 

2. PETER FALK WAS AN UNEXPECTED SEX SYMBOL.

Peter Falk in 'Columbo'
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Character actor Lee J. Cobb was also considered for the role, until Peter Falk phoned co-creator William Link. Falk had gotten a copy of the script from his agents at William Morris and told Link that he’d “kill to play that cop.” Link and Levinson knew the actor back from their days of working in New York, and even though he was the opposite of everything they’d originally pictured for Lt. Columbo, they had to admit that Falk had a certain likeability that translated to both men and women. Falk was described by a certain female demographic as “sexy,” and males liked him because he was an unthreatening, humble, blue-collar underdog who was smarter than the wealthy perps he encountered.

3. FALK WAS A GOVERNMENT WORKER BEFORE BECOMING AN ACTOR.

Peter Falk wasn’t too far removed from the character he played. In real life he tended to be rumpled and disheveled and was forever misplacing things (he was famous for losing his car keys and having to be driven home from the studio by someone else). He was also intelligent, having earned a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University, which led to him working for the State of Connecticut’s Budget Bureau as an efficiency expert until the acting bug bit him. He was also used to being underestimated due to his appearance; he’d lost his right eye to cancer at age three, and many of his drama teachers in college warned him of his limited chances in film due to his cockeyed stare. Indeed, after a screen test at Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn dismissed him by saying, “For the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.”

4. COLUMBO'S DOG WASN'T A WELCOME SIGHT AT FIRST.

Columbo's dog
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When Columbo was renewed for a second season, NBC brass had a request: they wanted the lieutenant to have a sidekick. Perhaps a young rookie detective just learning the ropes. Link and Levinson were resistant to the idea, but the network was pressuring them. They conferred with Steven Bochco, who was writing the script for the season opener, “Etude in Black,” and together they hatched the idea of giving Lt. Columbo a dog as a “partner.” Falk was against the idea at first; he felt that between the raincoat, cigar, and Peugeot his character had enough gimmicks. But when he met the lethargic, drooling Basset Hound that had been plucked from a pound, Falk knew it was perfect for Columbo's dog.

The original dog passed away in between the end of the original NBC run of the series and its renewal on ABC, so a replacement was necessary. The new pup was visibly younger than the original dog, and as a result spent more time in the makeup chair to make him look older.

5. FALK'S REAL-LIFE WIFE PLAYED A ROLE IN THE SERIES.

Falk first met Shera Danese, the woman who would become his second wife, on the set of his 1976 film Mikey & Nicky. The movie was being filmed in Danese’s hometown of Philadelphia, and the aspiring actress had landed work as an extra. They were married in 1977, and she was able to pad out her resume by appearing on several episodes of Columbo. Her first few appearances were limited to small walk-on parts—secretaries, sexy assistants, etc. By the time the series was resurrected on ABC in the early 1990s, she was awarded larger roles.

She originally auditioned for the role of the titular rock star in 1991’s “Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star,” but her husband adamantly refused, since the role included a scene of her in bed making love to a much younger man. She instead played the role of a co-conspiring attorney, and was also allowed to sing the song that was the major hit for the murdered star.

6. THE CHARACTER'S TRADEMARK RAINCOAT CAME FROM FALK'S CLOSET.

The initial wardrobe proposed for Columbo struck Peter Falk as completely wrong for the character. To get closer to what he wanted for Columbo, the actor went into his closet and found a beat-up coat he had bought years earlier when caught in a rainstorm on 57th Street. And he ordered one of the blue suits chosen for him to be dyed brown. The drab outfit would become one of the trademarks of the character for decades.

7. STEVEN SPIELBERG GOT AN EARLY BREAK ON COLUMBO.

“Murder by the Book” was the second Columbo episode filmed, but it was the first one to air after the show was picked up as a series. Filming was delayed for a month, though, when Falk refused to sign off on this “kid”—a 25-year-old named Steven Spielberg—to direct the episode. Finally he watched a few of Spielberg’s previous credits (all of them TV episodes) and was impressed by his work on the short-lived NBC series called The Psychiatrist. Once filming was underway, Falk was impressed by many of the techniques employed by the young director, such as filming a street scene with a long lens from a building across the road. “That wasn’t common 20 years ago,” Falk said. He went on to tell producers Link and Levinson that “this guy is too good for Columbo."

8. COLUMBO'S FIRST NAME WOUND UP THE SUBJECT OF A LAWSUIT.

Fred L. Worth, author of several books of trivia facts, had a sneaking feeling that other folks were using his meticulously researched facts without crediting him. He set a “copyright trap” and mentioned in one of his books that Lt. Columbo’s first name was “Philip,” although he had completely fabricated that so-called fact. Sure enough, a 1984 edition of the Trivial Pursuit board game listed the “Philip” Columbo name as an answer on one of their cards, which led to a $300 million lawsuit filed by Mr. Worth.

The board game creators admitted in court that they’d garnered their Columbo fact from Worth’s book, but the judge ultimately determined that it was not an actionable offense. By the way, years later when Columbo was available in syndicated reruns and HD TV was an option, alert viewers were able to freeze-frame a scene where the rumpled lieutenant extended his badge for identification purposes in the season one episode “Dead Weight” and determine that his first name was, in fact, “Frank.”

9. THE SERIES DIDN'T FOLLOW A STANDARD MYSTERY FORMAT.

The premise of Columbo was the “inverted mystery,” or a “HowCatchEm” instead of a “WhoDunIt.” Every episode began with the actual crime being played out in full view of the audience, meaning viewers already knew “WhodunIt.” What they wanted to know is how Lt. Columbo would slowly zero in on the perpetrator. This sort of story was particularly challenging for the series’s writers, and they sometimes found inspiration in the most unlikely places. Like the Yellow Pages, for example. One of Peter Falk’s personal favorite episodes, “Now You See Him,” had its genesis when the writers were flipping through the telephone book looking for a possible profession for a Columbo murderer (keep in mind that all of Columbo’s victims and perps were of the Beverly Hills elite variety, not your typical Starsky and Hutch-type thug).

A page listing professional magicians caught their eye, and that led to a classic episode featuring the ever-suave Jack Cassidy playing the role of the former SS Nazi officer who worked as a nightclub magician. When the Jewish nightclub owner recognized him and threatened to expose him, well, you can guess what happened. But the challenge is to guess how Lt. Columbo ultimately caught him. 

10. THERE WAS A SPINOFF THAT KIND OF WAS BUT THEN WASN'T.

The 1979 TV series entitled Mrs. Columbo was not technically related to the original Peter Falk series. In fact, Levinson and Link opposed the entire concept of the series; it was NBC honcho Fred Silverman who gave the OK to use the Columbo name and imply that Kate Mulgrew was the widowed/divorced wife (the series changed names and backstories several times during its short run) of the famed homicide detective. The “real” Mrs. Columbo was never mentioned by her first name during the original series, but actor Peter Falk possibly slipped and revealed that her name was “Rose” when he appeared at this Dean Martin Roast saluting Frank Sinatra and asked for an autograph.

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