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Ypres, the Final Fury

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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which bore the brunt of the fighting at Gheluvelt, had lost four-fifths of its original strength and had to be withdrawn from the front line, while the neighboring 2nd Division, having lost around a third, remained in the line east of Ypres.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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20 Things You Might Not Know About Mr. Show
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You never need an excuse to look back at Mr. Show with Bob and David, but given that today is co-creator Bob Odenkirk's 55th birthday, now seems to be as good a time as any.

1. BOB ODENKIRK AND DAVID CROSS’S FIRST MEETING DID NOT GO VERY WELL.

Following four years of writing on Saturday Night Live, Odenkirk was in Los Angeles in 1992 as a writer for the Chris Elliott Fox cult classic Get a Life. David Cross was a comedian in L.A. after performing for years in Boston. One boring afternoon, Cross asked friend and fellow stand-up Janeane Garofalo if she knew anybody that played basketball. The two went to Odenkirk’s house, and Garofalo introduced David to Bob and then asked if he wanted to play basketball. He said no.

2. ODENKIRK AND CROSS FIRST WORKED TOGETHER ON THE BEN STILLER SHOW.

Despite their inauspicious beginning, the two ended up having numerous fruitful collaborations, starting with their work on The Ben Stiller Show. Odenkirk was a writer/performer on the short-lived but Emmy award-winning sketch show with Garofalo, Stiller, and Andy Dick. Cross was brought in in the middle of the show’s 13-episode run as a writer.

3. THE CO-STARS FIRST PERFORMED ON STAGE TOGETHER AS "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ."

Odenkirk and Cross performed sketch comedy together at the Diamond Club in Los Angeles, with a third improviser that, the joke went, would either be deceased or out elsewhere getting high.

4. "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ' WAS ALMOST THE TITLE OF MR. SHOW

Odenkirk also pitched the title Grand National Championships, but David Cross was never a fan of it.

5. JACK BLACK, SARAH SILVERMAN, AND OTHER FUTURE STARS APPEARED ON THE SHOW BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS.

Black was in four episodes of Mr. Show, starring in the classic Jesus Christ Superstar parody “Jeepers Creepers.” Silverman was a performer in 10 episodes. Mary Lynn Rajskub, best known as Chloe on 24, was a featured actress in the first two years. Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, was a series regular for a majority of the run. Scott Adsit, a.k.a. 30 Rock’s Pete Hornberger, was in six episodes.

6. PATTON OSWALT WARMED UP THE MR. SHOW CROWD.

In addition to performing stand-up before tapings and keeping the studio audience interested in between scenes, Oswalt played Famous Mortimer in the episode “Operation: Hell on Earth” (but was credited as “Patton Oswald.”)

7. HOMELESS PEOPLE WERE NOT KIND TO THE ORIGINAL SETS.

Because the pilot episode was shot at a “down and dirty,” small Central Hollywood club, the sets had to be placed outside, where homeless people defecated on them.

8. YOU MIGHT ALSO RECOGNIZE SOME OF THE WRITING STAFF.

Dino Stamatopoulos was already on the original writing staff of Late Night with Conan O’Brien and had written for David Letterman before writing for Cross and Odenkirk. He would later create three shows and play Starburns on Community. Writer/performer Scott Aukerman co-created and executive produces Between Two Ferns, and created and stars on Comedy Bang! Bang!. Writer/performer Paul F. Tompkins hosted VH-1’s Best Week Ever! and currently hosts the satirical debate show No, You Shut Up!, where he moderates discussions by a panel full of puppets. Bob Odenkirk’s brother Bill has written ten episodes of The Simpsons.

9. THE DIRECTORS OF LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE LEARNED HOW TO DIRECT COMEDY FROM MR. SHOW.

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton were known for directing music videos like The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” and Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing,” and decided to direct two Mr. Show episodes to expand their filming vocabulary. The husband and wife team were behind the camera for the classic sketch “Monk Academy.”

10. ONE SKETCH WAS INFLUENCED BY LOUIS C.K.

One of the first sketches in the show’s history involved Odenkirk playing a priest forced to do rather unpleasant and un-priestly things. The idea sprang from a conversation David Cross had with fellow young Boston comic Louis C.K., where Louis talked about annoying people that try to claim a prize on a bet that their friends never agreed to in the first place.

11. HBO ONLY CENSORED THE SHOW ONCE.

Throughout four years and 30 episodes, the lone note Odenkirk and Cross got from HBO was to get rid of a line where one character tells another to have sex with a baby. Odenkirk admitted that being told to edit it out “wasn’t too much to ask.”

12. THEY ONLY RECEIVED ONE VIEWER COMPLAINT.

The only angry letter that Odenkirk and Cross were ever made aware of was from a military veteran who was offended by the sketch in “Who Let You In?” where Cross’s performance artist character attempts to defecate on the American flag. The two stars actually called the viewer and discovered that he didn’t watch the entire sketch, and therefore never realized that Cross’ character was never able to actually go through with it.

13. ONE SKETCH WAS CUT FROM THE SHOW SIX TIMES AND NEVER MADE IT TO AIR.

A sketch called “Party Car,” a joke on old, low-quality shows filled with '70s celebrities was cut from half a dozen scripts and never filmed. It would have featured Nipsey Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor, (or reasonable facsimiles), and a baby in a balloon-filled car.

14. BOB ODENKIRK GOT IN TROUBLE FOR USING A PICTURE OF HIS DEAD GRANDFATHER.

Because the sketch “Old Man In House” needed a photo of an old man, and the elderly gentleman was not the butt of the joke, Odenkirk thought it would be fine. Instead, some Odenkirks were “very upset.”

15. CROSS WAS PAYING OFF HIS STUDENT LOAN DEBTS THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE SERIES.

David Cross and Amber Tamblyn
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Despite executive producing and co-creating a series on television, Cross had trouble paying off his student loan debts from his time at Emerson College. Figuring that the person calling from the bill collection agency wouldn’t believe that he couldn’t pay if he knew his job status, Cross pretended that he worked at Mr. Show as a messenger.

16. ONE PERSON WAS GIVEN A "SPECIAL THANKS" IN THE CLOSING CREDITS OF EVERY EPISODE AS A JOKE.

As Cross once explained, Rick Dees was thanked in the credits of the pilot episode, even though he was “certainly nobody we would ever thank, or be in a position to thank.” Some personalities that were thanked for no discernable reason were Greg Maddux, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Gabe Kaplan, and Howard Zinn.

17. HBO CHANGED THE TIME SLOT FOR ITS FINAL SEASON, AND IT WAS "DEMORALIZING."

After airing Fridays at midnight for the first three seasons, HBO moved the show to Mondays at the same time, confusing some loyal viewers, and the ratings decreased as a result. Bob Odenkirk told a reporter that, after 30 episodes, HBO was still treating the cast and crew as “second-class citizens,” and that they were “demoralized” by the slot shift.

18. BOB AND DAVID TOLD A STUDIO AUDIENCE THAT THEY HAD JUST WITNESSED THE FINAL EPISODE, AND THEY WEREN'T JOKING.

“Patriotism, Pepper, and Professionalism,” the 40th and final episode of Mr. Show, was taped on November 21, 1998. After the final sketch was filmed, Odenkirk and Cross made their announcement, although the show’s cancellation wasn’t made official for another few months.

19. THERE WAS A MR. SHOW MOVIE THAT WENT STRAIGHT TO VIDEO.

Run Ronnie Run focused on David Cross’s redneck criminal character Ronnie Dobbs. It was filmed in 2001, but never made it to theaters. Bob Odenkirk admitted that the movie wasn’t perfect, but he blamed the poor quality on director Troy Miller, for not allowing himself and Cross to edit the movie.

20. THE TWO HAVE REUNITED A FEW OTHER TIMES.

David Cross and Bob Odenkirk star in 'W/ Bob and David'
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

In 2002, Bob, David, and Mr. Show writer/performers Brian Posehn, John Ennis, and Stephanie Courtney (Flo in the Progressive commercials) toured the country to perform some of the show’s sketches and material from their unproduced screenplay Mr. Show: Hooray For America! The next year, Odenkirk guest starred as Dr. Phil Gunty on a season one episode of Arrested Development, alongside Cross’ character Tobias Fünke.

In 2012, Odenkirk, Cross, and Posehn went on a six-city tour to promote their book filled with more unproduced material. Bob and David appeared briefly together the next year on an episode of Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! In 2015, 20 years after Mr. Show's debut, Netflix premiered W/ Bob and David, a five-episode sketch comedy show created by and starring the duo.

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30 Memorable Quotes from Carrie Fisher
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Just days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight en route to Los Angeles, beloved actress, author, and screenwriter Carrie Fisher passed away at the age of 60 on December 27, 2016. Though she’ll always be most closely associated with her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher’s life was like something out of its own Hollywood movie. Born in Beverly Hills on this day in 1956, Fisher was born into show business royalty as the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.

In addition to her work in front of the camera, Fisher built up an impressive resume behind the scenes, too, most notably as a writer; in addition to several memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels, including Wishful Drinking, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful, Postcards from the Edge, and The Princess Diarist (which was released last month), she was also an in-demand script doctor who counted Sister Act, Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer among her credits.

Though she struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness, Fisher always maintained a sense of humor—as evidenced by the 30 memorable quotes below.

ON GROWING UP IN HOLLYWOOD

“I am truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.”

“I was born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.”

“At a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“I was street smart, but unfortunately the street was Rodeo Drive.”

“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it.”

ON AGING

“As you get older, the pickings get slimmer, but the people don't.”

ON INSTANT GRATIFICATION

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

ON THE LEGACY OF STAR WARS

“People are still asking me if I knew Star Wars was going to be that big of a hit. Yes, we all knew. The only one who didn't know was George.”

“Leia follows me like a vague smell.”

“I signed my likeness away. Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send Lucas a couple of bucks.”

“People see me and they squeal like tropical birds or seals stranded on the beach.”

“You're not really famous until you’re a Pez dispenser.”

ON THE FLEETING NATURE OF SUCCESS

“There is no point at which you can say, 'Well, I'm successful now. I might as well take a nap.'”

ON DEALING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

“I'm very sane about how crazy I am.”

ON RESENTMENT

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

ON LOVE

“Someone has to stand still for you to love them. My choices are always on the run.”

“I've got to stop getting obsessed with human beings and fall in love with a chair. Chairs have everything human beings have to offer, and less, which is obviously what I need. Less emotional feedback, less warmth, less approval, less patience, and less response. The less the merrier. Chairs it is. I must furnish my heart with feelings for furniture.”

“I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.”

ON EMOTIONS

“The only thing worse than being hurt is everyone knowing that you're hurt.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS

“I envy people who have the capacity to sit with another human being and find them endlessly interesting, I would rather watch TV. Of course this becomes eventually known to the other person.”

ON HOLLYWOOD

“Acting engenders and harbors qualities that are best left way behind in adolescence.”

“You can't find any true closeness in Hollywood, because everybody does the fake closeness so well.”

“It's a man's world and show business is a man's meal, with women generously sprinkled through it like overqualified spice.”

ON FEAR

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

ON LIFE

“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to be art.”

“No motive is pure. No one is good or bad-but a hearty mix of both. And sometimes life actually gives to you by taking away.”

“If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

“I shot through my twenties like a luminous thread through a dark needle, blazing toward my destination: Nowhere.”

“My life is like a lone, forgotten Q-Tip in the second-to-last drawer.”

ON DEATH

“You know what's funny about death? I mean other than absolutely nothing at all? You'd think we could remember finding out we weren't immortal. Sometimes I see children sobbing at airports and I think, 'Aww. They've just been told.'”

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