First Battle of Champagne Begins

Imperial War Museum via Retronaut.com

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 159th installment in the series. Would you like to be notified via email when each installment of this series is posted? Just email RSVP@mentalfloss.com.

December 20, 1914: First Battle of Champagne Begins

By December 1914 a series of bloody battles on the Western Front had clearly demonstrated the enormous defensive advantage conferred by modern firepower, chiefly machine guns and fast-repeating rifles, which turned infantry charges into massacres and rendered offensive operations more or less futile. However the lesson took some time to sink in for commanders thoroughly inculcated with the 19th century principle of the offensive, asserting that men with sufficient spirit could overcome any obstacle. The inevitable result was more meaningless death and destruction.

On December 20, 1914, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre launched the second big Allied offensive on the Western Front, subsequently known as the First Battle of Champagne. According to the plan, the French Fourth Army under Fernand de Langle de Cary would attack the German Third Army under Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht in the Champagne region of northeastern France, while the French Tenth Army attacked from Artois in the west, threatening the Germans with encirclement and forcing them to retreat. At the same time the other French armies and the British Expeditionary Force would mount diversionary attacks all along the front, in order to pin German forces down and prevent them from sending reinforcements.

However this plan, like so many grand offensive conceptions in the First World War, proved wildly unrealistic. The French Fourth Army managed to make some small advances on the first day, but the offensive ran out of steam almost immediately, as the Germans hurried machine gun crews to cover the gaps opened in their barbed wire entanglements by French artillery. As December drew to a close de Cary responded by probing other spots in the German line, looking for weak links but with scant success, as local gains were immediately recaptured by German counteroffensives.

Meanwhile the diversionary attacks elsewhere on the Western Front made no progress, often at shockingly high cost, as recounted by Corporal Louis Barthas, a barrel maker from southern France who was none too impressed with his commanders or their management of the war:

… hardly had twenty men gotten out before one machine gun started clattering, then two, then three… In the squad that went ahead of us, one man was shot right through the shoulder, spurting so much blood that he was surely going to die without immediate attention. But no stretcher-bearers were in sight, and you couldn’t stop your forward march to take care of even your own brother. Passing in front of, over rather stepping over, this first moaning, wounded comrade, we had to splash through his blood, which made quite a nasty impression on us. Even the stupidest of us understood that we were going to our deaths, without the slightest hope of success, simply to serve as living targets for the German machine gunners.

Whatever French propaganda might have to say about the selfless patriotism of the poilus (grunts), Barthas noted that on this occasion they only advanced after mid-ranking officer, remaining safely behind in the trench, threatened to have their own machine gunners fire on them. A few days later, he witnessed another French officer threatening troops too terrified to leave the trench:

The captain of this company… protested against this attack organized against all common sense and doomed to certain failure, but, instructed to obey, he hurled himself forward and was struck down after a few steps. In the trench, the men trembled, wept, pleaded. “I have three children,” cried one. “Mama, mama,” said another, sobbing. “Have mercy, have pity,” one could hear. But the commandant, out of control, revolver in hand, cursed and threatened to send the laggards to the gallows… But suddenly he toppled over, his head pierced by a bullet.

As the offensive dragged on into the New Year, conditions were rendered even more miserable by prolonged downpours of freezing rain which flooded trenches (top, a British trench in January 1915), alternating with bitter cold that resulted in thousands of cases of frostbite. The rain also turned unpaved roads into quagmires, disrupting distribution of winter clothing, rations, and ammunition (although the roads were at least somewhat passable when they froze).

Henri de Lécluse, a French officer, recalled the situation on January 8, 1915: “It had been pouring for fourteen straight hours and the water, running down from the surrounding hills, rushed into the trench as if it were a canal… In a relatively short time the earth started to slide, the walls of the trench were giving way in places and the shelters were collapsing.” Barthas painted a similar picture in his own account:

What that month of January was like, what we suffered through, I won’t even try to describe. I would never have thought that the human body could withstand such trials. Almost every morning there was dry, white frost which formed icy stalactites hanging on our beards and mustaches and refrigerated our feet. Then during the day or the night the temperature would rise and the rain would fall, sometimes in a downpour, filling with mud and water our trenches which became rushing streams, irrigation canals.

Despite all this the fighting would continue, apparently due to sheer irrational inertia, and the First Battle of Champagne dragged on wretchedly into March 1915, yielding no strategic results but plenty of suffering.

Back home civilians on all sides worried about the soldiers enduring horrible privations at the front, and also fretted about their own ability to make it through the winter with limited resources, especially coal, already running short as army requisitions disrupted supply chains everywhere. For women especially it was a time of terribly anxiety and regret, according to Mildred Aldrich, an American woman living in a small rural village east of Paris, who struck up a conversation with a middle-aged Frenchwoman on the train:

… she asked me if I had any children, and received a negative reply. She sighed, and volunteered that she was a widow with an only son who was “out there,” and added: “We are all of us French women of a certain class so stupid when we are young. I adore children. But I thought I could only afford to have one… Now if I lose that one, what have I to live for?... it was silly of me to have but this one.”

Indeed death was sweeping away an entire generation of young men across Europe. According to some estimates, by the end of December 1914 France had already suffered almost a million casualties, including 306,000 killed, 220,000 taken prisoner, and 490,000 wounded. In Germany the total casualty figure was also around a million, including 241,000 dead, 155,000 taken prisoner, and 540,000 wounded.

And the war had only just begun.

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Josh Trank Wouldn't Mind Erasing Fantastic Four From Film History

Ben Rothstein, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Ben Rothstein, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

It’s not every day that you hear a director talking about wanting to completely erase one of their projects from film history. But when the topic of the 2015 box office bomb Fantastic Four comes up, director Josh Trank isn't mincing words. The director tweeted that he would “gladly” donate to a GoFundMe page to have his failed adaptation erased from the cinematic history books.

It's no secret that Fantastic Four is a sore subject for Trank. The production was plagued with rumors that there was a bit of friction on set, particularly between the director and star Miles Teller. Even once the film had wrapped, reports about the troubled production plagued Trank, and eventually led to him parting ways with Disney, for whom he was supposedly developing a standalone Boba Fett movie. (It didn't help that Fantastic Four tanked at the box office and even won a Razzie for Worst Picture).

The topic of starting a GoFundMe page for the film started after Trank responded to fans rallying for a page to get the rat at the end of Martin Scorsese's The Departed digitally erased. When asked if he would support a page to get rid of Fantastic Four, Trank seemed to oblige (though he has since deleted the tweet).


It’s no secret the previous Fantastic Four movies have had little success, but now that Disney and Fox are joining forces, the series could be entering into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Maybe now these superheroes will finally get the movie they deserve.

Hollywood's Brief Love Affair With Young Einstein Star Yahoo Serious

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The theater owners and exhibitors attending the ShoWest convention in February 1989 had a lot to look forward to. In an attempt to stir their interest in upcoming studio releases, major distributors were showing off stars and footage: Paramount led with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Columbia had Ghostbusters II. But it was Warner Bros. that caused the biggest stir.

In addition to Lethal Weapon 2, the studio had Tim Burton’s Batman, a straight-faced adaptation of the comic, and Michael Keaton—who slipped into a screening of some early footage—was no longer being derided as a poor casting choice. Then, in the midst of all this star power, the studio brought out a 35-year-old actor-writer-director with a shock of orange hair and an Australian accent.

The man had never appeared in a feature film before, much less starred in one, but Warner was gambling that his forthcoming comedy about a Tasmanian Albert Einstein who invents rock music and runs into Thomas Edison would be a hit. It had already become the sixth highest-grossing film in Australia's history, besting both E.T. and Rambo: First Blood Part II.

The man’s real name was Greg Pead, but Warner Bros. introduced him as Yahoo Serious, Hollywood’s next big comedy attraction.

 

To understand Warner’s appetite for an unproven commodity like Yahoo Serious, it helps to recall the peculiar preoccupation American popular culture had with Australians in the 1980s. Energizer had created a hit ad campaign with Mark “Jacko” Jackson, a pro football player who aggressively promoted their batteries in a series of ads; meanwhile, Paul Hogan parlayed his fish-out-of-water comedy, Crocodile Dundee, into the second highest-grossing film of 1986. (Serious would later bristle at comparisons to Hogan, whom he referred to as a “marketing guy” who sold cigarettes on Australian television.)

Born in Cardiff, Australia on July 27, 1953, Serious grew up in rural bush country and mounted car tires at a garage in order to pay his way through the National Art School. When he was expelled for illustrating the school's facade with satirical jokes that the faculty didn’t find particularly funny, Serious moved on to direct Coaltown, a documentary about the coal mining industry, and pursued painting.

Serious would later recall that the desire for a larger audience led him away from art and into feature filmmaking. ''It hit me like a ton of bricks one day,” Serious told The New York Times in 1989. “I remember having a cup of coffee and I went, 'Well, look, there is a giant canvas in every little town everywhere around the world. And on this giant canvas there are 24 frames of image on that screen every second and it's the most wonderful living art form.'” It was around this same time, in 1980, that Serious changed his name.

To get a feel for the language of film, Serious sat through repeated viewings of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove; he aspired to have the kind of total autonomy over his movies that directors like Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin enjoyed.

In 1983, Serious was traveling along the Amazon River when he spotted someone wearing a T-shirt depicting Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out. The image is now pervasive, appearing on posters and other merchandise, but it seemed unique to the performer, who was struck by the idea that Einstein was once young and never took himself too seriously. And the concept for Young Einstein was born.

 

Serious's idea, which transplanted Einstein to Tasmania and imagined encounters with Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison, and the atomic bomb, took years to assemble. He borrowed camera equipment and sold his car to help finance the film; he shot an eight-minute trailer that convinced investors he was capable of making a feature. His mother even cooked meals for the crew on set.

In order to maintain creative control, Serious gave up profit participation in Young Einstein, which he starred in, co-produced, co-wrote, and directed. When the film was released in Australia in 1988, it made an impressive $1.6 million at the box office and drew the attention of Warner Bros., which likely had visions of a Crocodile Dundee-esque hit. American press had a field day with Serious, who appeared on the cover of TIME and was given airtime on MTV.

Critics and audiences weren’t quite as enamored. The Orlando Sentinel suggested that "Tedious Oddball" would be a more appropriate name for the film's creator. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert wrote that, "Young Einstein is a one-joke movie, and I didn't laugh much the first time." In the U.S., Young Einstein grossed just over $11 million, a fairly weak showing for a summer comedy. It was bested in its opening weekend by both Ron Howard’s Parenthood and the Sylvester Stallone action-grunter Lock Up.

 

Although American distributors quickly cooled on Serious, Australia's enthusiasm for the filmmaker didn’t dampen. When Serious released 1993’s Reckless Kelly, a fictionalized account of outlaw Ned Kelly, it made $5.4 million in Australia—three times as much as Young Einstein. Serious took a seven-year sabbatical, then returned with 2000’s Mr. Accident, a slapstick comedy about an injury-prone man who tries to thwart a scheme to inject nicotine into eggs. Meeting a tepid critical and financial reception, it would be his third and (likely) final film.

At roughly the same time Mr. Accident was released, Serious took issue with upstart search engine Yahoo!, alleging the site was piggybacking on his popularity. He filed a lawsuit, which was quickly dropped when he failed to prove the URL had damaged him in any way.

Yahoo Serious attends an event
Paul McConnell, Getty Images

The amused headlines stemming from that incident were the last examples of Serious capturing attention in America. Having completed just three films, no other projects have come to fruition; Serious launched a website detailing some of his background and to air some of his Yahoo!-related grievances.

Now 65, Serious currently serves as founding director of the Kokoda Track Foundation, an Australian aid organization dedicated to improving the living conditions of Papua New Guineans. The board’s website lists him as Yahoo Serious, which is the name he claims that all of his family and friends have called him since he changed it in 1980.

“You can choose every aspect of your life,” Serious once said. “Why not your name?”

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