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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10 Facts About DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story For Its 15th Anniversary

Vince Vaughn stars in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004).
Vince Vaughn stars in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004).
Twentieth Century Fox

June 18, 2004 saw the release of two wildly different films in American cinemas: Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal and a goofy, cameo-filled, wrench-chucking sports comedy called DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story. Guess which one came out on top at the box office? The sleeper hit both saluted and skewered the sports movie genre. It also gave Chuck Norris the chance to enjoy a free helicopter ride.

1. Dodgeball's creator was inspired by the book Fast Food Nation.

DodgeBall writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber considered DodgeBall an homage to some of his favorite flicks, including Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Rocky (1976), and Bull Durham (1988). Another source of inspiration was Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, the nonfiction bestseller about the modern obsession with greasy, ready-made cuisine. Published in 2001, Fast Food Nation sold more than 1.4 million copies within five years. It also left plenty of fingerprints on Thurber’s script.

"I really took a cue from that—there's an absolute love/fear relationship thing in our culture," Thurber told Film Freak Central in 2014. "We're so weight conscious, so image conscious, so youth-oriented—and wrapped up with all that psychosis are these ad images of it being so cool and all-American and sexy to eat McDonald's and drink pop and all that. It pulls people in all sorts of different directions, so I wanted [Ben Stiller’s character] White Goodman to be sitting there with a doughnut and the car battery attached to his nipples … That situation with food, with sports, with so much of our culture. [It’s] already almost too surreal to satirize."

2. The movie's actors went through some rigorous training.

To ready themselves for the movie, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and the rest of the actors ran indoor dodgeball drills at what many of them have since described as a “boot camp.” According to Stiller, this basically consisted of “us at a gym a few times a week playing dodgeball.” While that may not sound too intense, the physicality of these sessions took its toll on the performers. “It’s a game for the young,” Stiller said. “It’s one thing when you’re eight, but when you’re 38, it gets really exhausting. After three or four minutes, you’re fried.” Practicing at his side was Stiller’s wife, Christine Taylor, who plays Kate Veatch of the Average Joe’s squad in DodgeBall.

3. Ben Stiller took Christine Taylor down with a dodgeball ... twice.

As a general rule, it’s never a good idea to hit one’s spouse in the face with a rubber ball while playing any sport, but that’s exactly what Stiller did to Christine Taylor—twice. Blow number one came during the boot camp; the second strike occurred while filming the epic Globo Gym/Average Joe’s showdown. The latter ball was intended to strike Vaughn, who reflexively flinched to get out of the way. In any event, Stiller admits that those two incidents put a temporary damper on the couple’s marital harmony “for like a week, because there’s no way to not get upset with somebody after you’ve done that. It just sent us both back to eighth grade." (Though the couple announced that they were divorcing in 2017, the split has never been made official, and the couple is still regularly seen together—sparking rumors of a reconciliation.)

4. Stiller borrowed much of his character's personality from 1995's Heavyweights.

The fact that Stiller borrowed some of White Goodman’s traits from Tony Perkis, the fanatical fat camp owner he played in 1995’s Heavyweights, won’t surprise anyone who has seen both films. DodgeBall’s White Goodman (as played by Stiller) is a bombastic, egomaniacal fitness guru with some inherited wealth and major insecurities. The same description also applies to Perkis. A lighthearted family comedy, Heavyweights didn’t fare well at the box office, grossing a meager $17.6 million. As such, when Stiller copied a few of Perkis’s mannerisms in DodgeBall, he figured that no one would notice.

"I always thought, ‘Well, nobody ever saw Heavyweights, so I can do this,” Stiller recalled. “But a lot of people saw Heavyweights … Apparently, it shows on the Disney Channel a lot or something.” Regarding the two characters, Stiller has said that Perkis is “definitely a first or second cousin” to Goodman.

5. Justin Long suffered a minor concussion on the set.

Justin Long, who plays Justin in the film, took some hard knocks while making this movie. For starters, a prop wrench made with hard rubber left a nasty cut on his eyebrow when Rip Torn, as Patches O’Houlihan, threw it at his face in one scene. Then, while filming another section of DodgeBall’s training montage, the actor was pelted with enough high-speed balls to render him "slightly concussed."

"They didn’t want me to drive home at the end of the day because I was a little off," Long told Today in 2017. “So next time you’re watching that and laughing, know that you’re laughing at my pain.” Still, the experience wasn’t all bad. According to New York Magazine, Long can often be seen riding a scooter adorned with the words “Average Joe’s,” a gift from Stiller.

6. Hank Azaria and Rip Torn didn't even try to synchronize their Patches O'Houlihan voices.

Early in the film, we get to watch an instructional video about dodgeball (and social Darwinism) hosted by a young Patches O’Houlihan, who is played by Hank Azaria. For the remainder of the film, however, it’s Rip Torn who portrays the seven-time ADAA all-star. You may have noticed that the two actors use very different accents in their respective scenes: Azaria, who joined the cast at Stiller’s invitation, called his performance “essentially a bad Clark Gable impression.” At the time, Torn’s sequences hadn’t been shot yet, leading someone in the crew to pipe up and say “You know, it’d be funny if Rip tries to emulate that voice!” “I was like, ‘Yeah, good luck walking up to Rip Torn and suggesting that he change his vocal quality in any way. Let me know how that goes for you,’” Azaria replied.

7. The Average Joe's team colors are an homage to Hoosiers.

Thurber, a fan of David Anspaugh’s Oscar-nominated Hoosiers (1986), tipped his hat to the Hickory Huskers’ red and yellow uniforms by giving the Average Joe’s squad—led by Vince Vaughn’s Pete LaFleur—an almost identical color scheme. 

8. Chuck Norris was reluctant to make a cameo.

The action star’s only scene was shot in Long Beach, California. Geographically speaking, this was problematic for Norris. “I was in L.A. when they asked me to do the cameo,” Norris told Empire Magazine. “I said no at first because it was a three-hour drive to Long Beach.” Hearing this, Stiller called Norris and begged him to reconsider. “He goes, ‘Chuck, please, you’ve got to do this for me!’” Norris recalled, “My wife said he should send a helicopter for me and that's what happened. I didn't read the screenplay, just did my bit where I stick my thumb up.”

After post-production on DodgeBall wrapped and Norris got around to seeing the finished product, he found himself enjoying most of it. However, there was one little moment in the final credits that really caught him off-guard. “In the end, when Ben’s a big fatty and watching TV, the last line of the whole movie is, 'F***ing Chuck Norris!' My mouth fell open ... I said, 'Holy mackerel!' That was a shock, Ben didn't tell me about that!"

9. One villain was originally supposed to be a robot.

By far the most mysterious player in the Purple Cobras lineup is Fran Stalinovskovichdavidovitchsky, an Eastern European all-star whom Goodman calls “The deadliest woman on earth with a dodgeball.” What’s the secret to her success? Well, in an early version of the screenplay, it’s revealed that Fran is actually a robot in disguise. Thurber ended up dropping the gag, which he considered too ridiculous—even by DodgeBall’s standards. However, when Missi Pyle was cast as Fran, the big twist hadn’t yet been cut.

“Initially, in the first script I read, she was a robot, like a sexy-bodied robot” Pyle explained. The original plan was to slowly pan the camera up over a partly-exposed Robo-Fran—with her metallic face and fake breasts on full display—at some point in the climax.

10. Alan Tudyk weighed in on a fan theory about Steve the Pirate.

In 2012, Redditor Maized made the case Steve the Pirate, Alan Tudyk’s swashbuckling oddball, is actually an “ex-Navy sailor who suffers from PTSD.” As evidence, Maized cited Steve’s tattoos, which bear a striking resemblance to those frequently worn by U.S. Naval recruits. In theory, the Average Joe’s patron uses his pirate persona to cope with his condition.

During a 2016 interview with Screen Crush, Tudyk was asked to offer his thoughts on the theory. With a chuckle, Tudyk replied that it “doesn’t seem like it’s impossible.” Emphasizing that he didn’t wish to “insult Navy sailors who have PTSD,” the actor said he’d consider taking the Redditor’s idea into account if a DodgeBall sequel is ever made.

Game of Thrones Director Said He Wanted to 'Kill Everyone' During the Battle of Winterfell

Iain Glen and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones.
Iain Glen and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones.
Helen Sloan, HBO

Now that Game of Thrones is over, it’s time to talk about the nitty-gritty of the episodes, particularly “The Long Night.” While the Battle of Winterfell may have been nerve-wracking to watch, there ended up being surprisingly fewer deaths than fans expected, considering the living were fighting the entire army of the dead.

Miguel Sapochnik, who directed the episode, was no beginner with battle scenes before taking on “The Long Night,” as he was also responsible season 6's iconic “The Battle of the Bastards” as well as the memorable season 5 episode “Hardhome.” While his list of Game of Thrones accomplishments is long, it turns out that Sapochnik's choices haven't always been in line with what showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss want.

According to IndieWire, Sapochnik’s aesthetic choices, such as the decision to shoot shoot Cersei and Tommen shadowed by prison-like bars to represent Tommen’s imprisonment in season 5, were not favored by the showrunners. “[Benioff and Weiss] said [it was] ‘so self-conscious and we hate it basically,'” Sapochnik revealed at the time. Because of disagreements like this, the pair “visually policed” the director.

There was a difference of opinion between the director and the creators again for “The Long Night,” Sapochnik revealed on IndieWire's Filmmaker's Toolkit podcast. “I wanted to kill everyone,” the director said, as reported by Esquire. “I wanted to kill Jorah in the horse charge at the beginning. I wanted it to be ruthless, so in the first 10 minutes you could say all bets are off, anyone could die. But David and Dan didn’t want to. There was a lot of back-and-forth on that."

Ultimately, Sapochnik gave in to Benioff and Weiss’s plan for the episode, and the Battle of Winterfell had far fewer casualties than most of the series's other battle scenes.

[h/t Esquire]

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