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.

7 Fast Facts About RollerCoaster Tycoon

Amazon
Amazon

For Windows gamers, 1999 was dominated by RollerCoaster Tycoon, a now-classic strategy and building game that tasked users with erecting an amusement park and gauging the popularity of rides while maintaining a profit margin and keeping patrons from barfing all over the landscape. For the game’s 20th anniversary, check out some facts about its origins, its association with pizza, and how it became a pinball machine.

1. The first RollerCoaster Tycoon sold 4 million copies.

RollerCoaster Tycoon was the brainchild of Scottish programmer Chris Sawyer, who had enjoyed success with his line of Transport Tycoon games in the 1990s that allowed players to build and operate their own railroad, truck, and ship lines. Sawyer decided to marry that concept with his love of roller coasters. An independent effort—Sawyer enlisted only two collaborators, artist Simon Foster and musician Allister Brimble—the first Tycoon game that was released in 1999 sold a staggering 4 million copies.

2. RollerCoaster Tycoon came free with frozen pizza.

In the early 2000s, packaged food companies offered products that came with promotional offers for CD-ROMs. In 2003, Pillsbury offered a free copy of RollerCoaster Tycoon to anyone who sent in proof of purchase barcodes from specially-marked boxes of Totino’s Pizza Rolls or Pillsbury Toaster Strudel.

3. There’s a RollerCoaster Tycoon pinball machine.

A pinball machine released to coincide with 2002’s RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 took the spiraling coasters of the game and put them under glass. Players could try and direct the pinball—a substitute for the park guest—around and through coasters like The Flying Ghost and The Rocket.

4. RollerCoaster Tycoon helped inspire Minecraft.

If you or a loved one has spent countless hours absorbed in the popular world-building game Minecraft, you have RollerCoaster Tycoon to thank. Minecraft creator Markus Persson was a fan of Tycoon for the way it allowed players to construct elaborate designs. He also enjoyed Dungeon Keeper, which had a fantasy element. Together, the two games encouraged him to develop Minecraft. The game debuted in 2009 and went on to become one of the biggest interactive success stories of all time.

5. RollerCoaster Tycoon inspired real roller coaster designers.

The laborious construction undertaken by players of RollerCoaster Tycoon weaned a number of players on the excitement of the amusement industry. Park designers hoping to break into the industry have used screen shots from the game as examples of their design prowess at trade shows.

6. You can get a spooky update of RollerCoaster Tycoon in time for Halloween.

Atari distributes an Android and iOS version of RollerCoaster Tycoon for mobile phone users. For 2019, the company is offering a Six Flags Fright Fest update to the game that adds a Halloween component. Players can add Skull Mountain, an actual Six Flags coaster, as well as a Demon Rock statue.

7. A RollerCoaster Tycoon fan spent 10 years building a park.

In 2017, a Reddit user declared he was finished building out his own custom park on RollerCoaster Tycoon 2. The 34 coasters and 255 attractions were all minutely detailed, offering a sprawling virtual park with themed areas covering everything from Egyptian attractions to a forest. In comparison, it took only four years to build the actual Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

10 Wild Scooby-Doo Fan Theories

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

For 50 years, the hard-working teens (and dog) of Mystery, Inc. have been investigating the paranormal. What began as a single Hanna-Barbera cartoon series—Scooby Doo, Where Are You!—in the 1960s quickly morphed into a franchise with multiple spin-off shows, comic books, and a few questionable movies. That adds up to a lot of spooky stories, which have inspired fans to come up with their own creepy (or just plain crazed) tales about Scooby and the gang. Here are some of their best theories, including one that somehow connects to Patrick Stewart.

1. Scooby is a Soviet space dog.

For all the cases that Fred, Daphne, Velma, and Shaggy solved, they never got to the bottom of the show’s most enduring mystery: How and why does Scooby Doo talk? Some fans think he can’t really speak—that it’s just something his buddy Shaggy imagines while he’s high. But one Redditor has a much more complicated and compelling theory based on the show’s 1960s setting. At that time, America and the USSR were locked in the so-called “Space Race,” competing to see who could claim the first achievements in spaceflight. The Russians famously shot Yuri Gagarin into the stratosphere in 1961, but he wasn’t the first Soviet in space. Canine cosmonauts like Laika beat him by several years, and if the USSR was willing to put a dog in a rocket, who’s to say they didn’t experiment on him first?

According to this fan theory, Scooby is a runaway from the Soviets’ classified space dog program, designed to breed pups capable of operating satellites and understanding radio commands. Scooby was the best of the bunch, the rare test subject who could understand and imitate human speech. Naturally, one of the scientists got attached and defected with Scooby to the USA. When that scientist died, Scooby found a new family with a group of friendly teenagers. But the CIA never stopped searching for this Soviet wunderpup, which is why Mystery, Inc. is constantly traveling by van—and why the original show is called Scooby Doo, Where Are You!

2. The show takes place during an economic depression.

A still from 'Scooby Doo, Where Are You!'
Warner Home Video

A classic Scooby-Doo mystery might take place at a theme park, museum, or mine—so long as it’s grimy and deserted. That’s a weird coincidence when you think about it: why are all these places so rundown? Well, that tends to happen when you’re weathering a financial collapse, and many clues indicate that’s just what’s happening in the world of Scooby-Doo. The towns he and his friends visit never seem to be doing well. No one has any money: Not the many scientists posing as monsters for cash, not the operators of every haunted attraction the gang investigates, and certainly not Shaggy and Scooby, who gorge on dog treats and lose their minds whenever they so much as smell a burger.

3. Mystery, Inc. is actually a cult.

Let’s break down the core members of the gang: You have Fred, the handsome and friendly frontman of the group. Then there’s Daphne, the fashionable and pretty one who mostly follows Fred around. Velma has the brains and Shaggy has full-blown conversations with a dog. When you really think about, doesn’t this all sound a bit like a cult? Fred would obviously be the cult leader, who recruits groupies like Daphne to obey his every command. Velma’s intelligence makes her a useful addition, and she could also be seeking acceptance from the “cool” kids. As for Shaggy, well, men who claim dogs can talk to them have a famously disturbing history—much like cult members.

4. They’re all draft dodgers.

Scooby Doo, Where Are You! premiered in 1969. Also happening that year? The Vietnam War. As able-bodied men (seemingly) over 18, Fred and Shaggy would both be eligible for the draft, which begs the obvious question: is Mystery, Inc. just a bunch of draft dodgers? The boys could be driving that van straight to Canada to avoid deployment, along with Fred’s fiancée Daphne and their antiwar activist friend Velma. Scooby’s stance on the war remains unclear, but he’s along for the ride.

5. Scooby Snacks alter your genes.

What if Scooby’s preferred treat is really a steroid capable of editing genetic code? It would explain why Scooby—and other members of his canine family, like Scrappy-Doo and Scooby-Dum—can talk, as well as their ability to perform “completely ridiculous stunts.” (Also, if Scrappy-Doo is on steroids, it would explain why he’s always trying to fight.) But what about its effect on humans? As far as we know, Shaggy is the only person who eats Scooby Snacks, and he seems to have a freakishly high metabolism, considering the mile-high sandwiches he eats and his super skinny frame.

6. Fred drives the Mystery Machine because the real owner is too high.

Whenever the gang piles into the Mystery Machine, there’s only one person behind the wheel: Fred. Mystery, Inc.’s de facto leader is constantly driving his friends from one haunted house to the next, which would imply that the Mystery Machine is his car. But why would a clean-shaven, preppy kid like Fred own a lime green van with flowers plastered over the doors? That car obviously belongs to a hippie, and in this group, that’s Shaggy. His hippie lifestyle, however, may be the reason Shaggy never drives. He’s either lost his license from driving under the influence, or Fred is worried he will, so someone else serves as his designated driver.

7. Shaggy is Captain America’s son.

This theory starts with small coincidences, like the fact that Norville “Shaggy” Rogers and Steve Rogers share a last name. Then it builds to something bigger when you factor in a detail from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While out on a morning run, Sam Wilson (a.k.a. Falcon) claims that Steve can run 13 miles in half an hour, a rate that breaks down to 26 mph. Shaggy, meanwhile, frequently keeps pace with Scooby, a Great Dane. Those dogs run up to 30 mph. Ergo, Shaggy is Steve’s son.

8. Monsters really do exist in the Scooby-Doo universe.

A still from 'Scooby Doo, Where Are You!'
Warner Home Video

Each time the gang catches a new “monster,” it always turns out to be a human in disguise, grumbling about how they “would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.” Monsters, the show tells us over and over again, are not real. But this Reddit theory poses an important question: If monsters don’t exist, why is there a business dedicated to catching the fake ones? The fact that Mystery, Inc. keeps getting calls implies that “supernatural fraud” is an entire category of crime, one that wouldn’t make sense or work if people didn’t believe in monsters. Everyone in the Scooby-Doo universe also seems to accept monsters as a normal and everyday occurrence, suggesting that monsters are real—the gang has just never caught one.

9. Shaggy and Scooby are actors.

When danger calls, Shaggy and Scooby tend to run the other way. But what if the group’s most cowardly members were actually actors pretending to be scared of ghosts, monsters, and other paranormal entities? According to this fan theory, Shaggy and Scooby are faking their over-the-top fear in order to draw the monsters out. By posing as easy targets, they know they’ll get spooked first, and thus make it easier for Mystery, Inc. to trap the ghost/witch/pirate. That’s why Fred always pairs Shaggy with Scooby when they split up to investigate, and it’s why after many years of investigating the supernatural, the two of them still don’t seem remotely used to it.

10. Green Room is just a gritty Scooby-Doo reboot.

The 2015 horror movie Green Room is about a band with a van that squares off against an evil old Nazi. The Scooby-Doo franchise is about a team (that was supposed to be a band) with a van that squares off against evil old men (who could also, theoretically, be Nazis). You do the math.

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