The Race to the Sea Begins

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 145th installment in the series.

September 24, 1914: The Race to the Sea Begins

As German and Allied forces fought to a bloody stalemate at the Battle of the Aisne, generals on both sides realized that the only chance for a quick victory lay in turning the enemy’s flank to the west. In mid-September they began rushing troops—in fact entire armies—to the far end of the front, resulting in a series of attacks and counterattacks that extended the line of battle from the valley of the Aisne 125 miles north to the Belgian coast. Known somewhat inaccurately as “The Race to the Sea” (the objective was to outflank the enemy, not to reach the sea), this rolling battle failed to yield victory for either side. Instead, as the opposing armies deadlocked again and again they unfolded two parallel lines of trenches, and by mid-October the entire 440-mile front from the Swiss border to the North Sea was entrenched.

First Battle of Picardy

After initial clashes on September 17-18, the Race to the Sea began in earnest with the First Battle of Picardy from September 22-26, when French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre ordered the French Sixth Army to attack the German First Army on the extreme right of the German line, in order to pin it down while the new French Second Army advanced to the north to attempt a flanking maneuver.

At the same time, the new German chief of the general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn—who replaced Helmuth von Moltke after the latter suffered a nervous breakdown during the Battle of the Marne—was contemplating a similar move. On September 23-24, Falkenhayn ordered the German Second Army, recently freed up by the Seventh Army’s move to the Aisne, to transfer its forces north, while the German Sixth Army also redeployed from the Franco-German frontier. Falkenhayn left behind the smaller Army Detachments Strantz, Falkenhausen, and Gaede (named for their commanders) to occupy the recently conquered St. Mihiel salient and guard the rest of the frontier.

Following the opening attack on September 22, the French Second Army made some progress, pushing the German First Army back north of Compiègne. But two days later, the arrival of German reinforcements from the deadlocked Reims front allowed the First Army to counterattack and regain much of the lost ground. Meanwhile, on September 24, the German Second Army began to arrive at Péronne on the Somme River, effectively eliminating the possibility of a flanking maneuver by the French; indeed, now it was the French who were on the defensive, forcing Joffre to rush reinforcements to Second Army just to keep the Germans in check.

In the Race to the Sea and the continuing fighting on the Aisne, the Germans enjoyed a huge advantage in heavy artillery, which allowed them to pulverize French units as they approached the battlefield and sever their communications and supply lines. In late September Irvin Cobb, an American correspondent for The Saturday Evening Post, saw a German 21-centimeter gun in action (image below) near Laon. This howitzer could lob a three-foot-long, 252-pound shell almost six miles, and just seeing it fired made a terrifying impression:

Then everything—sky and woods and field and all—fused and ran together in a great spatter of red flame and white smoke, and the earth beneath our feet shivered and shook as the twenty-one-centimeter spat out its twenty-one-centimeter mouthful. A vast obscenity of sound beat upon us, making us reel backward, and for just the one-thousandth part of a second I saw a round white spot, like a new baseball, against a cloud background. The poplars, which had bent forward as if before a quick wind-squall, stood up, trembling in their tops, and we dared to breathe again.

The Germans had a variety of means for locating targets for heavy artillery some miles away, including spies, hydrogen and hot air balloons, and planes. French and British soldiers soon came to fear the appearance of the bird-like Taube overhead, as recounted by British soldier George Devenish:

Sometimes an old Taube, the most sinister-looking of all machines, I think—like a bird of prey—will come over nosing round. Everyone lies low and hopes they won’t be seen, as they know now what to expect. You hope he passed you, but no—he turns and circles over you. Suddenly he drops a bright light, or sometimes some tinsel (which shines in the sunlight) over you, and you know you’re in for it.

Although the French were outgunned in heavy artillery, they were well equipped with field artillery in the form of the famous 75mm cannon, which devastated advancing German units, especially in the “encounter” battles of the Race to the Sea, when the French could lay in wait to lure the Germans to point blank range. One German soldier, Johann Knief (later a Communist activist), described a night attack:

The clever Frenchmen allowed our misled troops to approach as near as 50 meters. But then a storm of cannon muzzles and gun barrels descended on the good men, and it made one think the end of the world is nigh. A thick hail of bullets pattered into the close ranks of the Germans. The emerging confusion blasted all the approaching regiments apart in no time.

On September 25-27, as fighting raged along the entire Western Front and the Battle of Picardy ended with both sides entrenching, Falkenhayn again set his sights north, where the arrival of German Sixth Army near Cambrai now allowed him to attempt yet another flanking maneuver against the French Second Army. But once again Joffre had the same idea, resulting in yet another stalemate at the Battle of Albert from September 25-29. At the same time, Falkenhayn ordered the capture of Antwerp, Belgium’s main commercial city and a key port that allowed Britain’s Royal Navy to threaten the German rear. Another dramatic episode in the First World War, the Siege of Antwerp, was about to begin.

Indifference to Death

By the end of September 1914, all the belligerent nations had already suffered horrendous casualties in the bloody “war of movement” which dominated the opening months of the Great War. Although estimates and official tallies vary, by some estimates, after two months of war, Germany had already suffered around 375,000 casualties, including killed wounded, missing and prisoners, while Austria-Hungary had suffered around 465,000, Russia 840,000, France 529,000, and Britain 30,000. The number of dead was breathtaking: 27,000 French soldiers were killed on August 22 alone, and total French killed in action would exceed 300,000 by the end of December.

As the war of movement transitioned to trench warfare, ordinary soldiers quickly became inured to the scenes of death which surrounded them, accepting random loss as a part of everyday life and knowing their turn could come at any moment, without warning. A French soldier in the trenches in Alsace, André Cornet-Auquier, wrote in late September:

I would never have believed that I could remain so indifferent in the presence of dead bodies. For us soldiers, human life seems to count for nothing. To think that one can laugh, like a crazy man, in the midst of it all. But as soon as you begin to reflect an extraordinary feeling takes possession of you—an infinite gravity and melancholy. You live from day to day without thinking of the morrow, for you ask yourself, may there be a morrow? You never use the future tense without adding, If we get there. You form no projects for the time to come.

Similarly, on September 18, a British signals officer, Alexander Johnston, wrote in his diary, “one poor fellow was carried past with his leg blown away: in ordinary times I don’t think I could have stood such a sight, but now it does not affect me in the least.”

The strange converse of this casual indifference to death was sympathy for the enemy, also suffering. In a letter to his mother, John Ayscough, a priest with British Expeditionary Force, wrote about giving the last rites to a dying German soldier:

He was only twenty-one, a sad-faced, simple country lad from Prussian Poland, with no more idea why he should be killed or should kill anyone else than a sheep or a cow. He was horribly wounded by shell fire on Sunday, and had lain out in the rain ever since, till our people found him in the woods last night (this is Thursday). Isn’t it horrible to picture? starving, drenched, bleeding, so torn and shot in the buttock as to be unable to drag himself out of the woods. So his wounds had gangrened, and he must die… I know nothing more awful than the broken-hearted patience of such lads... if ever anything was an appeal to Heaven from a brother’s blood crying from the earth, it was one.

U-9 Sinks HMS Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue

In 1914, submarines were a relatively new weapon (the first modern submarine, the USS Holland, was launched in 1897) and still an unknown quantity. In theory they represented a clear threat to surface ships with their capability for a submerged torpedo attack, but no one was quite sure how effective they would be in practice. That question was settled decisively on September 22, 1914, when the German unterseeboot U-9, under Lieutenant Otto Weddigen, sank three British cruisers, sending 1,459 sailors to a watery grave.

U-9 was on patrol in the North Sea about 18 miles northwest off the Dutch coast when she came across the antiquated British cruisers, on patrol duty near the Straits of Dover to prevent German ships from entering the English Channel. Keeping U-9 submerged and using his periscope for only a few seconds at a time to avoid detection, Weddigen first attacked HMS Aboukir, recalling the scene through the periscope:

There were a fountain of water, a burst of smoke, a flash of fire, and part of the cruiser rose in the air. Then I heard a roar and felt reverberations sent through the water by the detonation. She had been broken apart, and sank in a few minutes. The Aboukir had been stricken in a vital spot and by an unseen force; that made the blow all the greater. Her crew were brave, and even with death staring them in the face kept to their posts…

Tragically, it seems the commanders of the Aboukir’s sister ships, who were obviously unused to submarine warfare, never considered the possibility that a U-boat might be lurking nearby. Oblivious to the danger, they now hurried to rescue the survivors from the Aboukir instead of taking evasive action. Weddigen couldn’t believe his good luck as two more British cruisers came into view:

I had stayed on top long enough to see the other cruisers, which I learned were the Cressy and the Hogue, turn and steam full speed to their dying sister, whose plight they could not understand, unless it had been due to an accident… But soon the other two English cruisers learned what had brought about the destruction so suddenly. As I reached my torpedo depth I sent a second charge at the nearest of the oncoming vessels, which was the Hogue. The English were playing my game, for I had scarcely to move out of my position, which was a great aid, since it helped to keep me from detection… When I got within suitable range I sent away my third attack. This time I sent a second torpedo after the first to make the strike doubly certain. My crew were aiming like sharpshooters and both torpedoes went to their bulls-eye.

The glaring incompetence and huge human loss sparked outrage in the United Kingdom, where the Royal Navy, long venerated as the “senior service,” now faced serious questions about its ability to protect British overseas trade and guard Britain itself against invasion. Although the latter fear was greatly exaggerated, the coming years would show that the submarine threat to merchant ships was very real indeed. But this was a double-edged sword for Germany, as unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral vessels also helped alienate the powerful United States, dooming Germany in the long run.

Shell Shortages and Industrial Mobilization

As September 1914 came to a close, informed observers on both sides already understood that they were in for a long, bloody war. It was also becoming clear that artillery of all kinds would play a much greater role than anyone planned for before the war, as the only means of destroying trenches. The number of shells required to soften up enemy defenses far outstripped the stockpiles laid in by prewar planners, and current production was nowhere near sufficient to keep the guns supplied, resulting in shell shortages on all sides.

For example by the end of September 1914 the French Army needed 100,000 75mm shells a day, but daily production was just 14,000. Britain was in even worse shape, with production of high explosives meeting just 8% of demand into 1914. Meanwhile, by December 1914, the Russian Army had used up its entire reserve of around 6.5 million shells, for an average monthly expenditure of 1.3 million shells, but maximum production was still just 500,000 shells per month; as early as September 8, 1914, Grand Duke Nicholas, the commander of the Russian forces, begged the Tsar to increase production, warning that there were only 25 shells per gun remaining. On the other side Austria-Hungary produced just 116,000 heavy artillery shells by December 1914, far short of the million ordered, and Germany was experiencing smaller but still significant shell shortages by October 1914.

Some of the belligerent governments began trying to boost production in the fall of 1914, but these initial efforts generally failed to accomplish much. On September 20, 1914, French War Minister Millerand met with leading industrialists to urge greater production, but with three-quarters of French industry in German hands, there was little they could do in the short term. Similarly, on October 12, the British Cabinet established a “Shells Committee” which was supposed to coordinate manufacturing efforts, but this proved woefully ineffective, leading to the “Shell Scandal” in the spring of 1915. In Russia, War Minister Sukhomlinov was apparently detached from reality, breezily assuring French chief of the general staff Joffre on September 25, 1914 that no shell shortage existed.

Although they started out with greater shell stockpiles, Germans faced a more serious situation in the long term as the war cut them off from supplies of organic nitrates needed to make gunpowder; in 1914, most of the world’s organic nitrates came from mines in Chile, and the Royal Navy swiftly interdicted German supplies. In September 1914, the famous German chemist Emil Fischer met with German officials to warn them of impending shortages of ammonia and nitric acid, which would result in military collapse unless a new source could be found. Luckily for Germany, a few years before, chemist Fritz Haber had figured out how to fix atmospheric nitrogen to create ammonia, and in September 1913, BASF had begun testing industrial production; now, with a little work they were ready to ramp up production to supply the war effort. German technology had saved the day.

Broadly speaking, industrial mobilization was still in its infancy, however. As the war went on, shortages of all kinds worsened, prompting national governments to create huge bureaucracies tasked with conserving raw materials, rationing food, clothing and fuel, and maximizing industrial and agricultural production—the advent of total war. In the long run, many of these measures would strain labor relations, undermining the political truces that supposedly united all classes around the national cause at the beginning of the war. On the other hand, the drafting of women into factories and farm work held out the possibility of a revolutionary change in gender relations—although it would take four traumatic years of war, and another round of agitation by suffragettes, to bring it about.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Netflix Promises That The Office Isn't Going Anywhere, Despite Reports to the Contrary

NBCUniversal, Inc.
NBCUniversal, Inc.

With all of the streaming sites available, deciding which one to choose can sometimes be just as difficult as figuring out what to watch once you get there. But one thing is certain: For Netflix users, The Office never fails. Which explains why Dunder Mifflin devotees panicked when they heard that the NBC series would be leaving the streaming giant's library. Fortunately, Netflix quickly took to Twitter to reassure fans that the Steve Carell-starring comedy isn’t going anywhere ... until at least 2021.

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that NBCUniversal might want to take back its rights to The Office in order to put the series on their own streaming site, which is not yet live. This, of course, sent fans into a frenzy. Many took to social media to share how upset they were that their favorite workplace comedy might be disappearing. (A similar situation happened with Friends, another one of Netflix's most popular shows, back in December.)

Although The Office aficionados can breathe a sigh of relief—at least for now—Marvel fans haven't been so lucky. Disney has started to remove its movies along with Netflix’s Marvel shows like The Punisher and Daredevil. The new streaming service Disney+ will drop in November and will feature Marvel films, as well as original series—plus the entire Star Wars franchise.

With all the changes, it’s not difficult to become paranoid that your favorite show might be taken off your preferred streaming service. Better to binge what you can now while it’s still available.

16 Jaw-Dropping Facts About Cirque du Soleil

Hannah Peters, Getty Images
Hannah Peters, Getty Images

Since its founding in 1984, the contemporary circus Cirque du Soleil has performed for more than 180 million people in 450 cities on every continent but Antarctica. In other words: There’s probably a Cirque show near you right now … or there will be soon.

For the uninitiated, Cirque du Soleil—which celebrates its 35th anniversary in July 2019—features a mix of circus acts, street performance, unparalleled acrobatic feats and the avant-garde. And no matter the show’s theme, technology always plays a role—the Montreal-based company, now one of the largest live theatrical companies in business, consistently ups its game with state-of-the-art stages, special effects and world-class stunts. Read on to learn even more jaw-dropping facts about Cirque du Soleil.

  1. Cirque du Soleil began as a troupe of 20 street performers.

Cirque du Soleil has its roots in Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul (the Baie-Saint-Paul Stiltwalkers), a group that performed acts like fire-breathing and juggling on the streets of Baie-Saint-Paul in Quebec, Canada, in the early 1980s. One of the troupe's members was Guy Laliberté, who eschewed a college education to join the group; in 1984, he presented a proposal to the Canadian government for a company of performers that would tour across the country to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier's discovery of Canada. Laliberté landed a $1 million contract to make the proposal a reality, which led to the incorporation of the group as a non-profit under the name Cirque du Soleil.

  1. The name Cirque du Soleil means "Circus of the Sun."

"When I need to take time to reenergize, I go somewhere by the ocean to sit back and watch the sunsets. That is where the idea of 'Soleil' came from, on a beach in Hawaii, and because the Sun is the symbol of youth and energy," Laliberté explained to Fortune in 2011.

  1. Las Vegas has six permanent Cirque du Soleil shows.

Cirque du Soleil's first show had 10 acts and hit 15 cities in Quebec. Now, there are 23 Cirque du Soleil shows worldwide, including six permanent shows in Las Vegas and 12 that are on tour. Though it's hard to determine the most popular show, Cirque du Soleil calls Alegría—which ran from 1994 to 2013 before being "reinterpreted in a renewed version" in 2019—one of its “most beloved shows,” with 6600 performances for more than 14 million audience members around the world. That’s a lot of tickets.

  1. Mystère is the longest-running Cirque du Soleil show.

Cirque’s first permanent show in Las Vegas, Mystère has also been on stage the longest of all Cirque productions. This lighthearted, family-friendly show opened in 1993 at Treasure Island and features a classic Cirque du Soleil mix of gymnastics and trapeze.

  1. Cirque du Soleil shows are incredibly expensive to produce.

For example, —which premiered in 2005—cost at least $165 million to create, making it one of the most expensive theatrical productions in history (to compare, the Spider-Man musical, Broadway’s most expensive show, had cost estimates about half that). Much of the budget was for technical feats, including a battle scene featuring acrobats on wires fighting vertically. Sadly, it was during the battle sequence that aerialist Sarah Guillot-Guyard died in 2013. It was Cirque du Soleil’s first onstage fatality.

  1. There’s even a Cirque du Soleil show on ice.

Crystal, Cirque’s “first experience on ice,” premiered in December 2017 in Quebec City and Montreal. It’s basically the choreographed stunts you’d expect from Cirque du Soleil but everybody’s on skates.

  1. Many Cirque du Soleil casts include former Olympians.

Cirque du Soleil employs 1300 performers from 50 different countries, and Cirque says about 40 percent of its artists come from disciplines like rhythmic gymnastics and diving. To that end, in 2016, Cirque had 22 Olympians (including two medalists) on stage in a variety of roles, from high-flying trampoline acts to synchronized swimmers. That’s not to mention the many performers who are recruited from national gymnastics teams.

  1. Cirque du Soleil cast members train extensively.

Before being cast in a specific show, prospective performers attend artistic and acrobatic training at Cirque du Soleil’s international headquarters in Montreal. Depending on the show and the role, cast members then do daily training and warm-ups, sometimes lasting more than 90 minutes, along with regular rehearsals. The daily work-outs can include weight lifting, stretching, handstands, pull-ups, sit-ups, and rope work.

  1. The kitchens on Cirque du Soleil tours use up to 3000 pounds of food a week.

Traveling Cirque shows have a team of around five chefs who pump out meals for cast and crew each day. Menus change daily and incorporate local specialties in whatever city the show lands (think: bison in Denver; étouffée in Louisiana). In a 2017 interview, Cirque kitchen manager Paola Muller said that the kitchen can run through 2000 to 3000 pounds of food a week. A 2016 Thrillist article notes that 90 to 100 pounds of protein are served at each meal, and there’s a salad bar with 22 ingredients.

  1. Cirque du Soleil takes safety seriously—but the stunts are still dangerous.

Cirque du Soleil cast members pull off dangerous stunts on the regular. But even with stringent safety systems in place (some performers have called them “annoying”), injuries and accidents happen. According to Vanity Fair there were 53 injuries at the permanent Las Vegas shows in 2012, and in 2018, an aerialist was killed in Florida during a performance of Volta.

  1. Princess Diana was an early fan of Cirque du Soleil.

She took Princes Harry and William to an early performance by the group in 1990. In early 2019, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, attended a Cirque du Soleil charity performance; the duchess wore one of Diana's bracelets and a dress inspired by one of her late mother-in-law's looks.

  1. Cirque du Soleil has an outreach program based on the “social circus.”

Established in 1995, Cirque du Monde supports the philosophy that circus arts can be used as interventions for at-risk youth, creating confidence and community for kids who need it. This idea is referred to as “the social circus”; this and other global citizen campaigns have reached 100,000 kids in 50 countries.

  1. Some costume pieces in Cirque du Soleil's O are made out of shower curtains.

The costumes for all Cirque shows are unique in that they have to be not only stunning but also athletically practical and safe. Cirque’s Montreal Costume Workshop employs 300 full-time artisans, including shoemakers, milliners, and textile designers.

Each costume’s evolution requires a lot of ingenuity—and trial and error. Take, for instance, Cirque’s water show, O, in Las Vegas. Some costume pieces are made out of shower curtains, pipe cleaners, or bits of foam to make them float in the water. The wardrobe staff here does 60 loads of laundry a night to keep the 4800 costumes and accessories clean, and there’s a totally separate room dedicated to drying, complete with specialized heaters.

  1. Luzia is the first Cirque show in Spanish.

Although Cirque du Soleil shows don’t regularly rely on speaking parts (that’s what the mimes are for!), Luzia is the first show to be entirely en Español. Luzia’s title combines two Spanish words—luz for “light” and lluvia for “rain”—and features a state-of-the-art rain curtain and revolving stage.

  1. You can experience Cirque du Soleil in VR.

A natural extension of the Cirque experience? Virtual reality. In 2018, MK2, a Paris-based company specializing in VR cinemas, acquired distribution rights to four Cirque shows, co-produced by Canada’s Felix & Paul. Now, you can experience moments from , Kurios, Luzia, and O on Google Daydream, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and more.

  1. Cirque du Soleil's The Beatles LOVE has been onstage longer than the Beatles.

Cirque’s Beatles show, LOVE, has been on stage since 2006. The Beatles were together for around a decade, from 1960 (or '62, if you're going by when Ringo Starr joined, and when they released their first single) to 1970. LOVE remains a stalwart of the Cirque canon, regularly selling about 75 to 90 percent theater capacity, and is at the top of many Vegas “must dos.”

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