Ypres, the Final Fury

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 153rd installment in the series. 

November 11, 1914: Ypres, the Final Fury

After their hard-won victories in October 1914, in early November the Allied commanders believed that the German attacking force was spent and the Battle of Ypres was effectively over. They were wrong on both counts: the Germans were about to make one last attempt to break through British and French defenses in Flanders and capture the strategic French ports on the English Channel. The final push would come at a place called Nonneboschen, or the Nuns’ Woods.

False Hopes 

The Allies’ optimism was understandable: the Germans had sustained horrifying casualties at Langemarck and Gheluvelt, supplies were running low on both sides, rain was turning the countryside into a muddy morass, and winter was coming soon. To the north the Belgians had opened the sluices holding back the North Sea, flooding the low-lying area around the River Yser and making a German advance here impossible. Last but not least Germany faced fresh demands on the Eastern Front, where its ally Austria-Hungary was teetering on the point of collapse (again) following Russian advances in the northeastern province of Galicia.

At the same time the end of fighting in Flanders couldn’t come soon enough for the Allies, who were spread dangerously thin after suffering breathtaking losses. The British 7th Division, which bore the brunt of the fighting at Gheluvelt, had lost four-fifths of its original strength and had to be withdrawn from the front line, while the neighboring 2nd Division, having lost around a third, remained in the line east of Ypres. A new 8th Division assembled from fresh overseas troops was rushed south to back up the ragged 4th, 6th, and Indian (Lahore and Meerut) divisions near Armentieres and La Bassee. French reinforcements in the Détachement d'Armée de Belgique took over formerly British trenches north and south of Ypres. All the troops were in dire need of rest and resupply.

Unfortunately for them, the Allies underestimated the determination of German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn to obtain a final decision in the west before the year was out. What’s more, it turned out the decision to flood the plains around the Yser was a double-edged sword, because in addition to protecting the Belgian Army it freed up German troops from the Fourth Army to fight elsewhere. Falkenhayn drew additional artillery and troops from the Sixth Army under Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht. Finally, to lead the attack he chose the First Prussian Guards Division – an elite unit drawn from all over the German Empire, which was often detailed to ceremonial duties for Kaiser Wilhelm II, giving rise to the (possibly exaggerated) belief among the Allies that it was his “favorite” unit.

Overture on the Ypres-Comines Canal and River Yser 

In the days leading up to the main assault, the Germans made a number of diversionary attacks to the north and south of Ypres in order to pin down the defenders and prevent the Allied commanders in Flanders, Ferdinand Foch and Sir John French, from moving troops to reinforce the Ypres front. To the south the Germans pushed British and French troops back near the Ypres-Comines canal, eventually capturing Wytschaete and Messines – but the ridges west of these towns remained in Allied hands, giving them a crucial defensive advantage. 

To the north the German 43rd and 44th Reserve Divisions, along with the 4th Ersatz Division, renewed the assault on the key canal town of Dixmude – realistically the only place left in the northern portion of the battlefield to cross the River Yser and Yperless Canal, following the inundation of the floodplains. On November 10 the Germans finally succeeded in pushing the vastly outnumbered French marines back across the Yser and captured Dixmude, but Belgian engineers managed to destroy the bridges, rendering the town victory meaningless.

These attacks succeeded in distracting the Allies while the Germans amassed huge amounts of artillery east of Ypres in preparation for the final push on November 11, which would be preceded by the most intense bombardment in history up to that time.

Nonneboschen 

At 6:30am on November 11, the pre-dawn stillness was shattered as the German guns opened up along a nine-mile front, with the shelling continuing to grow in intensity for several hours, followed by the Prussian Guards and German 4th Division advancing through thick mist, pitting 17,500 German attackers against around 7,800 British defenders.

The brunt of the attack fell against the British trenches located amidst three stands of trees straddling the Ypres-Menin Road: the Shrewsbury Wood southwest of Gheluvelt, and the Polygon Wood (so-called because of its odd shape) and the Nonneboschen or Nuns’ Woods (so-called because they used to belong to a Benedictine convent) north of the village.

Once again the Germans advanced in close formations, making easy targets for the defenders’ massed rifle fire, which hit the ranks of the German 4th Division especially hard, again leading the Germans to mistakenly conclude they were facing machine guns. But on the north side of the Ypres-Menin Road the Prussian Guards made more progress, approaching on the double while the German artillery hammered the British defenses in front of them. Soon the Prussian Guards had forced the British out of some of their frontline trenches, although troops from the 1st Royal Scots and 2nd Royal Sussex Regiments, along with some neighboring French Zouaves, counterattacked and prevented them from advancing further.

With the bombardment reaching its climax around 9am, a renewed German attack located the weak spot in the British lines, along a mile of front between the Polygon Wood and Gheluvelt. With their advance covered by thick clouds of mist, the Germans managed to approach within 50 yards of the front trenches, surprising the defenders, some of whom fled before the sudden onslaught, weakening the British line even further. 

As the British defenders were forced to fall back to isolated strongholds, each held by a few dozen men, the Germans pushed forward, making the most progress at Nonneboschen, where around 900 Prussian Guards almost succeeded in breaking through the overstretched British line. Now, in another dramatic episode (uncomfortably reminiscent of the near-disaster at Gheluvelt on October 29-31) the British struggled to contain the German breakthrough with field artillery firing at point-blank, supported by infantry shooting out in the open, with no defensive cover. 

The outcome of the battle hinged on pushing the Prussian Guards out of the Nonneboschen, and at this critical juncture Lieutenant Colonel Henry Davies ordered two battalions, the 2nd Oxfordshire Light Infantry and Bucks, to clear the Germans out of the woods. One British junior officer, C.S. Baines, recalled the suicidal counterattack across open fields towards the German positions in Nonneboschen: 

We all did a sprint and then lay down and shot at the Germans. Up again and on as hard as we could, down and shooting, up again and into the wood, sweating in every pore, more from fright than exertion!... I don't think I missed one German that I fired at on this day. I fired fifty-two rounds through my revolver, and burnt my left hand on the barrel in reloading. 

After pushing the Germans out of the woods, the British were able to rush reserves to the battlefield and establish a new defensive line, although a push to recapture their old trenches was called off when it was discovered the Germans had entrenched themselves inside the former British front line. Once again catastrophe had been averted, but only by the narrowest of margins. 

As the main phase of the First Battle of Ypres drew to a close, three weeks of incredibly fierce fighting had reduced a large portion of Flanders to ruins, producing eerie and surreal landscapes all along the still-active front. Sarah Macnaughtan, a British volunteer nurse, described the town of Nieuport on the coast:

It is like some town one sees in a horrible nightmare. Hardly a house is left standing, but that does not describe the scene… Not a window remains in the place; all are shattered and many hang from their frames. The fronts of the houses have fallen out, and one sees glimpses of wretched domestic life: a baby's cradle hangs in mid-air, some tin boxes have fallen through from the box-room in the attic to the ground floor… There is a toy-shop with dolls grinning vacantly at the ruins or bobbing brightly on elastic strings.

Ypres itself was in flames thanks to heavy German shelling, which among other things destroyed the city’s famous Cloth Hall, the gift of wealthy medieval weavers and a leading example of secular Gothic architecture, on November 22 (top, the Cloth Hall burns). The rest of the town suffered a similar fate. Visiting Ypres a few months later, Edith Wharton described the strange scenes of the abandoned city: 

…some house-fronts are sliced clean off, with the different stories exposed, as if for the stage-setting of a farce… A hundred signs of intimate and humble tastes, of humdrum pursuits, of family association, cling to the unmasked walls. Whiskered photographs fade on morning-glory wallpapers, plaster saints pine under glass bells, antimacassars droop from plush sofas, yellowing diplomas display their seals on office walls. It was all so still and familiar that it seemed as if the people for whom these things had a meaning might at any moment come back and take up their daily business. 

Meanwhile even as the chances of a strategic breakthrough dwindled, the fighting continued, seemingly with a momentum all its own. On both side ordinary soldiers lived in terror and squalor, as unending rain filled trenches in the low-lying countryside with mud and water. Edward Fox, an American correspondent in the German trenches near La Bassee, described seeing the German troops use flares as they defended against a British night attack in the middle of a downpour:

Then a swift rush of air, as of a mighty exhalation, and rockets from our trenches began to swish, one after the other, in short flaming arcs that terminated in a burst of greenish light, turning the night into a mad radiance so that we might better see to kill…. I saw a confusion of color – the green, unearthly haze of the rockets; a wavering red hue of fire that had a way of rushing at you, vanishing and then appearing further back, rushing at you again; and I saw a patch of mud, glistening like mottled tarnished silver in the rain, and once when a whitish rocket burst, the air seemed to be sparkling with myriad drops of silver and diamonds. And the rain poured down; and the guns shook the sky; and the rifles rattled on… And it dawned upon you in horror that the fiery red lines had been lines of men, shooting as they had come; and that, when one line had been mowed down, another had rushed up from behind… 

On the other side Herbert Stewart, a supply officer, saw an officer ask a Tommy what it was like in the trenches, receiving this concise reply: “O God, sir, it is Hell – just Hell.” And there was no end in sight.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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The Annual Festivals That Draw the Most People in Every State
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iStock

Every state has that one big event each year that draws residents from across the region or even across the nation. Louisiana has Mardi Gras. Kentucky has the Kentucky Derby. South Dakota has Sturgis. Genfare, a company that provides fare collection technology for transit companies, recently tracked down the biggest event in each state, creating a rundown of the can't-miss events across the country.

As the graphic below explores, some states' biggest public events are national music and entertainment festivals, like Bonnaroo in Tennessee, SXSW in Texas, and Summerfest in Wisconsin—which holds the world record for largest music festival.

Others are standard public festival fare. Minnesota hosts 2 million people a year at the Minnesota State Fair (pictured above), the largest of its kind in the U.S. by attendance. Mardi Gras celebrations dominate the events calendar in Missouri, Alabama, and, of course, Louisiana. Oktoberfest and other beer festivals serve as the biggest gatherings in Ohio (home to the nation's largest Oktoberfest event), Oregon, Colorado, and Utah.

In some states, though, the largest annual gatherings are a bit more unique. Some 50,000 people each year head to Brattleboro, Vermont for the Strolling of the Heifers, a more docile spin on the Spanish Running of the Bulls. Montana's biggest event is Evel Knievel Days, an extreme sports festival in honor of the famous daredevil. And Washington's biggest event is Hoopfest, Spokane's annual three-on-three basketball tournament.

Mark your calendar. Next year could be the year you attend them all.

A graphic list with the 50 states pictured next to information about their biggest events
Genfare

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