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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.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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Star Wars Premiered 41 Years Ago … and the Reviews Weren’t Always Kind
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A long time ago (41 years, to be exact) in a galaxy just like this one, George Lucas was about to make cinematic history—whether he knew it or not. On May 25, 1977, moviegoers got their first glimpse of Star Wars, Lucas’s long-simmering space opera that would help define the concept of the Hollywood “blockbuster.” While we're still talking about the film today, and its many sequels and spinoffs (hello, Solo), not every film critic would have guessed just how ingrained into the pop culture fabric Star Wars would become. While it charmed plenty of critics, some of the movie’s original reviews were less than glowing. Here are a few of our favorites (the good, the bad, and the Wookiee):

"Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it's done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we'd abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories."

—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Star Wars is not a great movie in that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut about the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001Star Wars is a battle between good and evil. The bad guys (led by Peter Cushing and an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog) control the universe with their dreaded Death Star."

—Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood."

—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

"The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional ... I kept looking for an 'edge,' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world's affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."

—Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

“There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp—that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

—Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal

Star Wars … is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table … The way definitely not to approach Star Wars, though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny.”

—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"Viewed dispassionately—and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time—Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

—Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!”

—John Simon, New York Magazine

"Star Wars is somewhat grounded by a malfunctioning script and hopelessly infantile dialogue, but from a technical standpoint, it is an absolutely breathtaking achievement. The special effects experts who put Lucas' far-out fantasies on film—everything from a gigantic galactic war machine to a stunningly spectacular World War II imitation dogfight—are Oscar-worthy wizards of the first order. And, for his own part, Lucas displays an incredibly fertile imagination—an almost Fellini-like fascination with bizarre creatures.”

—Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

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