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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11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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