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 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

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