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Apocalypse at Ypres

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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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


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Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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