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.

16 Biting Facts About Fright Night

William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Charley Brewster is your typical teen: he’s got a doting mom, a girlfriend whom he loves, a wacky best friend … and an enigmatic vampire living next door.

For more than 30 years, Tom Holland’s critically acclaimed directorial debut has been a staple of Halloween movie marathons everywhere. To celebrate the season, we dug through the coffins of the horror classic in order to discover some things you might not have known about Fright Night.

1. Fright Night was based on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

Or, in this case, "The Boy Who Cried Vampire." “I started to kick around the idea about how hilarious it would be if a horror movie fan thought that a vampire was living next door to him,” Holland told TVStoreOnline of the film’s genesis. “I thought that would be an interesting take on the whole Boy Who Cried Wolf thing. It really tickled my funny bone. I thought it was a charming idea, but I really didn't have a story for it.”

2. Peter Vincent made Fright Night click.

It wasn’t until Holland conceived of the character of Peter Vincent, the late-night horror movie host played by Roddy McDowall, that he really found the story. While discussing the idea with a department head at Columbia Pictures, Holland realized what The Boy Who Cried Vampire would do: “Of course, he's gonna go to Vincent Price!” Which is when the screenplay clicked. “The minute I had Peter Vincent, I had the story,” Holland told Dread Central. “Charley Brewster was the engine, but Peter Vincent was the heart.”

3. Peter Vincent is named after two horror icons.

Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.

4. The Peter Vincent role was intended for Vincent Price.

Roddy McDowall in Fright Night (1985)
Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

“Now the truth is that when I first went out with it, I was thinking of Vincent Price, but Vincent Price was not physically well at the time,” Holland said.

5. Roddy McDowall did not want to play the part like Vincent Price.

Once he was cast, Roddy McDowall made the decision that Peter Vincent was nothing like Vincent Price—specifically: he was a terrible actor. “My part is that of an old ham actor,” McDowall told Monster Land magazine in 1985. “I mean a dreadful actor. He had a moderate success in an isolated film here and there, but all very bad product. Basically, he played one character for eight or 10 films, for which he probably got paid next to nothing. Unlike stars of horror films who are very good actors and played lots of different roles, such as Peter Lorre and Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, this poor sonofabitch just played the same character all the time, which was awful.”

6. It took Holland just three weeks to write the Fright Night script.

And he had a helluva good time doing it, too. “I couldn’t stop writing,” Holland said in 2008, during a Fright Night reunion at Fright Fest. “I wrote it in about three weeks. And I was laughing the entire time, literally on the floor, kicking my feet in the air in hysterics. Because there’s something so intrinsically humorous in the basic concept. So it was always, along with the thrills and chills, something there that tickled your funny bone. It wasn’t broad comedy, but it’s a grin all the way through.”

7. Tom Holland directed Fright Night out of "self-defense."

By the time Fright Night came around, Holland was already a Hollywood veteran—just not as a director. He had spent the past two decades as an actor and writer and he told the crowd at Fright Fest that “this was the first film where I had sufficient credibility in Hollywood to be able to direct ... I had a film after Psycho 2 and before Fright Night called Scream For Help, which … I thought was so badly directed that [directing Fright Night] was self-defense. In self-defense, I wanted to protect the material, and that’s why I started directing with Fright Night."

8. Chris Sarandon had a number of reasons for not wanting to make Fright Night.

Chris Sarandon stars in 'Fright Night' (1985)
Chris Sarandon stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

At the Fright Night reunion, Chris Sarandon recalled his initial reaction to being approached about playing vampire Jerry Dandrige. "I was living in New York and I got the script,” he explained. “My agent said that someone was interested in the possibility of my doing the movie, and I said to myself, ‘There’s no way I can do a horror movie. I can’t do a vampire movie. I can’t do a movie with a first-time director.’ Not a first-time screenwriter, but first-time director. And I sat down and read the script, and I remember very vividly sitting at my desk, looked over at my then wife and said, ‘This is amazing. I don’t know. I have to meet this guy.’ And so, I came out to L.A. And I met with Tom [Holland] and our producer. And we just hit it off, and that was it.”

9. Jerry Dandridge is part fruit bat.

After doing some research into the history of vampires and the legends surrounding them, Sarandon decided that Jerry had some fruit bat in him, which is why he’s often seen snacking on fruit in the film. When asked about the 2011 remake with Colin Farrell, Sarandon commented on how much he appreciated that that specific tradition continued. “In this one, it's an apple, but in the original, Jerry ate all kinds of fruit because it was just sort of something I discovered by searching it—that most bats are not blood-sucking, but they're fruit bats,” Sarandon told io9. “And I thought well maybe somewhere in Jerry's genealogy, there's fruit bat in him, so that's why I did it.”

10. William Ragsdale learned he had booked the part of Charley Brewster on Halloween.

William Ragsdale had only ever appeared in one film before Fright Night (in a bit part). He had recently been considered for the role of Rocky Dennis in Mask, which “didn’t work out,” Ragsdale recalled. “But a few months later, [casting director] Jackie Burch tells me, ‘There’s this movie I’m casting. You might be really right for it.’ So, I had this 1976 Toyota Celica and I drove that through the San Joaquin valley desert for four or five trips down for auditioning. And in the last one, Stephen [Geoffreys] was there, Amanda [Bearse] was there and that’s when it happened. I had read the script and at the time I had been doing Shakespeare and Greek drama, so I read this thing and thought, ‘Well, God, this looks like a lot of fun. There’s no … iambic pentameter, there’s no rhymes. You know? Where’s the catharsis? Where’s the tragedy?’ … I ended up getting a call on Halloween that they had decided to use me, and I was delighted.”

11. Not being Anthony Michael Hall worked in Stephen Geoffreys's favor.

In a weird way, it was by not being Anthony Michael Hall that Stephen Geoffreys was cast as Evil Ed. “I actually met Jackie Burch, the casting director, by mistake in New York months before this movie was cast and she remembered me,” Geoffreys shared at Fright Fest. “My agent sent me for an audition for Weird Science. And Anthony Michael Hall was with the same agent that I was with, and she sent me by mistake. And Jackie looked at me when I walked into the office and said, ‘You’re not Anthony Michael Hall!’ and I’m like ‘No!’ But anyway, I sat down and I talked to Jackie for a half hour and she remembered me from that interview and called my agent, and my agent sent me the script while I was with Amanda [Bearse] in Palm Springs doing Fraternity Vacation, and I read it. It was awesome. The writing was incredible.”

12. Evil Ed wanted to be Charley Brewster.

Stephen Geoffreys stars in 'Fright Night' (1985).
Stephen Geoffreys stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Geoffreys loved the script for Fright Night. “I just got this really awesome feeling about it,” he said. “I read it and thought I’ve got to do this. I called my agent and said ‘I would love to audition for the part of Charley Brewster!’ [And he said] ‘No, Steve, you’re wanted for the part of Evil Ed.’ And I went, ‘Are you kidding me? Why? I couldn’t… What do they see in me that they think I should be this?' Well anyway, it worked out. It was awesome and I had a great time.”

13. Fright Night's original ending was much different.

The film’s original ending saw Peter Vincent transform into a vampire—while hosting “Fright Night” in front of a live television audience.

14. A ghost from Ghostbusters made a cameo in Fright Night.

Visual effects producer Richard Edlund had recently finished up work on Ghostbusters when he and his team began work on Fright Night. And the movie gave them a great reason to recycle one of the library ghosts they had created for Ghostbusters—which was deemed too scary for Ivan Reitman's PG-rated classic—and use it as a vampire bat for Fright Night.

15. Fright Night's cast and crew took it upon themselves to record some DVD commentaries.

Because the earliest DVD versions of Fright Night contained no commentary tracks, in 2008 the cast and crew partnered with Icons of Fright to record a handful of downloadable “pirate” commentary tracks about the making of the film. The tracks ended up on a limited-edition 30th anniversary Blu-ray of the film, which sold out in hours.

16. Vincent Price loved Fright Night.


Columbia Pictures

Holland had the chance to meet Vincent Price one night at a dinner party at McDowall’s. And the actor was well aware that McDowall’s character was based on him. “I was a little bit embarrassed by it,” Holland admitted. “He said it was wonderful and he thought Roddy did a wonderful job. Thank God he didn’t ask why he wasn’t cast in it.”

7 Timeless Facts About Paul Rudd

Rich Fury, Getty Images
Rich Fury, Getty Images

Younger fans may know Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, one of the newest members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, the actor has been a Hollywood mainstay for half his life.

Rudd's breakout role came in 1995’s Clueless, where he played Josh, Alicia Silverstone's charming love interest in Amy Heckerling's beloved spin on Jane Austen's Emma. In the 2000s, Rudd became better known for his comedic work when he starred in movies like Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Anchorman (2004), The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), and I Love You, Man (2009).

It wasn’t until 2015 that Rudd stepped into the ever-growing world of superhero movies when he was cast as Scott Lang, a.k.a. Ant-Man, and became part of the MCU.

Rudd has proven he can take on any part, serious or goofy. More amazingly, he never seems to age. But in honor of (what is reportedly) his 50th birthday on April 6, here are some things you might not have known about the star.

1. Paul Rudd is technically Paul Rudnitzky.

Though Paul Rudd was born in Passaic, New Jersey, both of his parents hail from London—his father was from Edgware and his mother from Surbiton. Both of his parents were descendants of Jewish immigrants who moved to England from from Russia and Poland. Rudd’s last name was actually Rudnitzky, but it was changed by his grandfather.

2. His parents are second cousins.

In a 2017 episode of Finding Your Roots, Rudd learned that his parents were actually second cousins. Rudd responded to the discovery in typical comedic fashion: "Which explains why I have six nipples." He also wondered what that meant for his own family. "Does this make my son also my uncle?," he asked.

3. He loved comic books as a kid.

While Rudd did read Marvel Comics as a kid, he preferred Archie Comics and other funny stories. His English cousins would send him British comics, too, like Beano and Dandy, which he loved.

4. Rudd wanted to play Christian in Clueless. And Murray.

Clueless would have been a completely different movie if Rudd had been cast as the suave Christian instead of the cute older step-brother-turned-love-interest Josh. But before he was cast as Cher’s beau, he initially wanted the role of the “ringa ding kid” Christian.

"I thought Justin Walker’s character, Christian, was a really good part," Rudd told Entertainment Weekly in 2012. "It was a cool idea, something I’d never seen in a movie before—the cool gay kid. And then I asked to read for Donald Faison's part, because I thought he was kind of a funny hip-hop wannabe. I didn’t realize that the character was African-American.”

5. His role model is Paul Newman.

In a 2008 interview for Role Models, which he both co-wrote and starred in, Rudd was asked about his real-life role model. He answered Paul Newman, saying he admired the legendary actor because he gave a lot to the world before leaving it.

6. Before he was Ant-Man, he wanted to be Adam Ant.

In a 2011 interview with Grantland, Rudd talked about his teenage obsession with '80s English rocker Adam Ant. "Puberty hit me like a Mack truck, and my hair went from straight to curly overnight," Rudd explained. "But it was an easier pill to swallow because Adam Ant had curly hair. I used to ask my mom to try and shave my head on the sides to give me a receding hairline because Adam Ant had one. I didn’t know what a receding hairline was. I just thought he looked cool. She said, 'Absolutely not,' but I was used to that."

Ant wasn't the only musician Rudd tried to emulate. "[My mom] also shot me down when I asked if I could bleach just the top of my head like Howard Jones. Any other kid would’ve been like, 'F*** you, mom! I’m bleaching my hair.' I was too nice," he said.

7. Romeo + Juliet wasn’t Rudd's first go as a Shakespearean actor.

Yet another one of Rudd's iconic '90s roles was in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, but it was far from the actor's first brush with Shakespeare. Rudd spent three years studying Jacobean theater in Oxford, England, and starred in a production of Twelfth Night. He was described by his director, Sir Nicholas Hytner, as having “emotional and intellectual volatility.” Hytner’s praise was a big deal, considering he was the director of London's National Theatre from 2003 until 2015.

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