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Apocalypse at Ypres

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October 20, 1914: Apocalypse at Ypres

One of the greatest battles in history, the desperate struggle at Ypres in October-November 1914 was the climactic fight of the “Race to the Sea” – an all-out German push to break through the Allied line and capture Calais and the other French ports on the English Channel, thus dividing the Allies, threatening to outflank the French forces from the north, and maybe even setting the stage for an invasion of Britain.

Reflecting these huge stakes, the First Battle of Ypres (so-called to distinguish it from at least two subsequent battles) was conducted on an epic scale, bringing together more men and more firepower than some whole wars did in the previous century. Including the armed clashes to the north on the River Yser and south to Armentières, it involved about a million men on both sides, including around 600,000 German soldiers, 250,000 French, 100,000 British, and 65,000 Belgians.

The losses were staggering. From October 12 to November 12, 1914 the British sustained 56,000 casualties, including 8,000 killed, 30,000 wounded, and 18,000 missing (of whom perhaps a third or more were also killed). While it’s harder to find precise numbers for the other combatants, the Germans suffered around 135,000 casualties across all categories, the French 85,000, and the Belgians 22,000. Assuming that one fourth of the casualties were fatal, as in the case of the British, it seems safe to assume that around 75,000 soldiers lost their lives at the First Battle of Ypres.

The First Phase: Langemarck 

After the prelude at La Bassée, Armentières, Messines, and the Yser, the main battle of Ypres commenced on October 20 and lasted about three weeks. In this time the nondescript, low-lying countryside of Flanders, its farms and grazing land separated by neat hedges and crisscrossed by drainage canals under a gray sky, was converted into hell on earth by three huge but ultimately unsuccessful German assaults – one at Langemarck beginning October 20, the second at Gheluvelt beginning October 29, and the finale at Nonneboschen (the Nuns’ Woods) on November 11 (above, a German nighttime barrage).

The first German push at Langemarck began just as the British Expeditionary Force was arriving at Ypres, while to the north the Belgians fought desperately to hold off German forces along the Yser, with the help of French reinforcements organized as the new Détachement d'Armée de Belgique under General Victor Louis Lucien d'Urbal, composed of the II Cavalry Corps under de Mitry, a brigade of French marines, and the 87th and 89th Territorial Divisions (still en route). 

As fighting raged across the entire Flanders front, British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French, still unaware of the huge forces arrayed against the Allies, ordered the British I Corps (including the 1st and 2nd Divisions) to attack east of Ypres with the intention of liberating the Belgian city of Bruges. The move was to be coordinated with a French advance to the south. However this goal proved to be unrealistic to say the least; Henry Wilson, the British liaison to the French Army, sardonically observed, “Bruges for all practical purposes is as far as Berlin.” 

The plan failed to survive contact with the enemy, as the British divisions, including the 7th Division holding the southern flank, slammed into five German divisions from the new Fourth Army advancing in the opposite direction. The British dug in but the Germans, determined to break through, sent wave after wave of infantry against the shallow, unfortified British trenches, advancing in close formation against machine guns and massed rifle fire. The result was an appalling massacre, with both sides sustaining very heavy casualties, but the Germans suffering most of all, as some regiments lost over 70% of their strength.

The Germans eventually succeeded in forcing the British back, capturing Langemarck on October 22, but the cost was out of all proportion to the gains. William Robinson, a volunteer dispatch driver with the British Army, recalled shocking scenes: “The enemy seemed to rise out of the ground and sweep towards us like a great tidal wave, but our machine guns poured steel into them at the rate of six hundred shots per minute, and they’d go down like grass before the scythe… The Germans were climbing over heaps of their own dead, only to meet the same fate themselves.” 

In the same vein Alexander Johnston, a mid-ranking officer, wrote in his diary: “Two of the crack shots in the Regiment were able to methodically pick off Germans one by one, who were lost in the fog and did not know where they were, as they loomed out of the mist at about 50 yards range, and in this way alone disposed of over 100 of them!” And an anonymous British nurse recorded several officers’ account in her diary: “They said there were 11,000 Germans dead, and they were using the dead piled up instead of trenches.” 

According to the “myth of Langemarck” which took hold in German memory, the Reserve divisions were composed of inexperienced, untrained college students who went to their deaths singing patriotic songs, and the battle was remembered as the “Kindermord bei Ypern,” or “The Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres.” Recently historians have cast doubt on the truth of this story (it seems most of the Reservists were older working-class men) but the “Kindermord” became a vital part of Nazi propaganda, dwelling on the tragic bravery of idealistic German youth, who died happily defending the Fatherland.

Reality wasn’t always so heroic. A German soldier from Alsace, Dominik Richert, was unapologetic about ducking out of battle with a friend when he could: 

Then we hid in the cellar of a house which had been stocked with food by its inhabitants.  In one corner sat a woman and a girl of about twenty. They were very afraid of us. By using gestures we were able to explain that they did not need to be afraid of us. We spent three pleasant days together… On the evening of the third day we heard footsteps crashing down the stairs. It was a lieutenant… “You damned cowards get a move on out of here!” he yelled at us.

Even when they weren’t fighting, soldiers on both sides endured rain, cold, hunger, lice, and rudimentary living arrangements, causing morale to plummet. In a letter to his wife another German soldier, Paul Hub, described their billets near the front line: “If there isn’t any straw then you just fall asleep on the bare floor. We never take our clothes off. Lots of houses are being shot to pieces, set alight and burning. It was a terrible sight when night came… Maria, this sort of war is so unspeakably miserable.”

Attack on Dixmude 

While the main thrust of the first German offensive attack around northeast of Ypres, the Germans were also advancing against the Belgians and French positions behind the River Yser. On the far northern end of the front, the defenders were assisted by shallow-draft monitors from the Royal Navy which bombarded the advancing German Ersatz 4th Division, directed by artillery spotters in a balloon tethered further west on the Belgian coast. 

The Germans tried to soften up the defenses with an unrelenting artillery bombardment along the entire Yser front. As village after village went up in flames, Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, described seeing:

an astounding and terrible panorama, traced in its outline by the black fumes of shell-fire above the stabbing flashes of the batteries. Over Nieuport there was a canopy of smoke, intensely black, but broken every moment by blue glares of light as a shell burst and rent the blackness. Villages were burning on many points of the crescent, some of them smouldering drowsily, others blazing fiercely like beacon fires… 

To the south the Germans captured a bridge across the Yser at Tervaete on October 21, but the Belgians prevented them from crossing in force. Meanwhile French marines were fighting tenaciously to hold Dixmude against two German divisions, outnumbering the French by around six to one. From October 23-24 the Germans mounted fourteen separate assaults on Dixmude, but failed to capture the city, again encountering incredibly fierce resistance and sustaining heavy casualties. One German soldier, Kurt Peterson, described the fighting at Dixmude in a letter to his parents: “We all lay like logs on the ground and all about us death hissed and howled. Such a night is enough to make an old man of one… We have had enough of war. One is not necessarily a coward because one’s whole nature revolts against this barbarity, this gruesome slaughter.”

As German guns pounded the Belgians and French positions along the Yser, on October 24 the Germans succeeded in driving the Allies back north of Dixmude, and it became increasingly obvious that there was a real chance of a German breakthrough. Now at the suggestion of the French General Ferdinand Foch, Belgium’s King Albert decided to use his last, most drastic defense: they would open the dikes and flood the plains along the Yser.  

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Ape Meets Girl
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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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