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Germans Repulsed at Givenchy

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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 165th installment in the series.

January 25-31, 1915: Germans Repulsed at Givenchy 

By the beginning of 1915, most ordinary soldiers and officers accepted the bloody futility of offensive action, but their commanders remained convinced that a breakthrough was possible, if only they threw enough men and artillery against a weak spot in the opposing line, choosing the right moment to achieve total surprise. Unfortunately for the rank and file, surprise was quickly becoming a rare commodity, thanks to ubiquitous aerial reconnaissance, spies, and deserters.

Many sources claim it was a German deserter who gave away chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn’s plan for an attack by the German Sixth Army against the British First Army near Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée, on the road between La Bassée and Béthune, on January 25, 1915. As the First Battle of Champagne ground on to the east with little result tying down French forces there, Falkenhayn hoped to strike a decisive blow against the British forces straddling the La Bassée canal just south of Givenchy. This threatened the exposed German salient in front of La Bassée. A British push here could disrupt German communications to the south, splitting the German line (as indeed the British had tried to do already). Falkenhayn hoped to eliminate this threat and maybe even open a path to the French ports on the English Channel.

After stumbling into the British trenches in the pre-dawn hours, around 6:30am the deserter warned a British officer that the Germans were about to open a general assault with a huge artillery bombardment accompanied by the explosion of mines—tunnels dug under no-man’s-land all the way to the British lines and packed with explosives (another tactic resurrected from siege warfare). Despite this warning, the wave of artillery shells and exploding mines which hit the British positions at 7:30am was more intense than expected, tearing a gap in the British line which allowed the Germans to advance all the way to the second line of British trenches south of the canal, reaching the center of Givenchy to the north. One British officer, Frederick L. Coxen, described the furious exchange of fire in his diary:

When the bombardment started it was more horrific than any of the other ones I experienced. The sound of artillery fire was continuous, except when they fired their 17 inch guns… The whine of hundreds of shells going through the air, mixed with the explosion of both above and ground level shells, was deafening. All around me great mounds of earth were uplifted by bursting shells. We rapidly replied with gunfire of our own, which added greatly to the unbearable noise. The smoke from gunfire and bursting shells was so heavy, that at times we couldn't see our target… The heavy bombardment forced our infantry to retire. Since our battery position was the foremost battery behind their trenches, I knew if our infantry lost the small ridge in front of us, it would be the finish of us and our guns.

Beginning in the early afternoon, British officers rallied troops from two regiments—the famous Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards, along with reinforcements from the London Scottish regiment, the First Royal Highlanders of the Cameron Highlanders, and the Second King’s Rifle Corps. They finally halted the onrushing Germans with blistering massed rifle and machine gun fire. The British forces then attempted to regain the momentum with a counterattack of their own, but found the tables turned as they ran into a wall of fire from the Germans, now entrenched.

Over the following days the British called up reinforcements and slowly regained some of the lost ground. On the morning of January 29, the Germans unleashed another massive artillery bombardment and sent three battalions forward against the new British lines between the canal to the south and the Béthune-La Bassée road to the north, but this time made little progress against the reinforced defenders. By late January the German assault at Givenchy ended, having inflicted substantial casualties on both sides in return for scant strategic results. It settled, like so many other battles, in stalemate.

Life in the Trenches

While fighting raged around Givenchy, ordinary soldiers and mid-ranking officers saw the pointlessness of attacks on fortified positions and worked out informal ceasefires like the famous Christmas truce, despite the fact that these were strongly disapproved by high-ranking officers on both sides. Once again, British soldiers found some German units, particularly those from Saxony, more willing to “live and let live.” On January 29th Sergeant John Minnery wrote in his diary:

We are lying facing the Saxons, and I think they are about fed-up with this war.  They have behaved as they are since the Xmas truce. They walk about on top of their trench, and we do likewise.  They are only about 200 yards in front of us. They dont snipe us and we dont snipe them, but the Prussians who are on our right, snipe at us pretty constant.

Although these arrangements certainly made life less terrifying (at least temporarily), no one could do anything about the weather, and basic living conditions remained intolerable as freezing rain turned the landscape into a muddy morass and trenches into streams (top, a flooded British trench). In January 1915 Victor Chapman, an American volunteer with the French Foreign Legion, wrote to a friend, “the state of filth I live in is unbelievable… Our heads get crusted with mud,– eyes and hair literally gluey with it.” Meanwhile a British soldier, George Benton Laurie, described digging trenches in waterlogged mud under fire: “The whole thing was most weird, with the rockets flying and bullets going, and working parties shovelling for dear life in the darkness. We all tumbled about into shell-holes or ditches in turn, where the water is very cold. I suppose the utter hopelessness of it all prevents one getting ill.”

The water and mud were more than a nuisance—they could be fatal. One anonymous nurse with the British army recounted a chilling story she heard from some wounded officers:

… they told me a horrible story of two Camerons who got stuck in the mud and sucked down to their shoulders. They took an hour and a half getting one out, and just as they said to the other, “All right, Jock, we'll have you out in a minute,” he threw back his head and laughed, and in doing so got sucked right under, and is there still. They said there was no sort of possibility of getting him out; it was like a quicksand. 

A far more common affliction was “trench foot,” a painful circulatory disease caused by standing in cold water for long periods of time, resulting in blisters, open sores, fungal infections, and eventually gangrene. In late December 1914 William Robinson, an American volunteer dispatch rider in the British Army, noted in his diary:

Most of the Royal Scots are suffering from “trench feet.” Their feet have swollen to such an extent that they have burst their boots and are as big as a man’s head. They are all blue and the blood runs through the pores of the skin, apparently. A lot came in on their hands and knees, and many came dragging themselves on their bellies through the mud. It was terrible.

It’s worth noting that some soldiers probably let their feet deteriorate on purpose, in order to get sent back to “Blighty” (Britain). One British soldier, Edward Roe, described the strategy: “No! He will let them develop. In another three or four days he will report sick. He makes certain that he will get to Blighty. What does the loss of three or four or more toes matter so long as he gets ‘out of it’?”

Soldiers could at least take cold comfort from the knowledge that these awful conditions afflicted both sides equally. Adolf Hitler, now working as a regimental dispatch runner in the Bavarian Army on the Flanders front south of Ypres, wrote to his old landlord in Munich: “The weather is miserable; and we often spend days on end in knee-deep water and, what is more, under heavy fire.” Like many of his fellow soldiers on both sides of no-man’s-land, Hitler also noted the surreal aspect of the battlefield:

… what is most dreadful is when the guns begin to spit across the whole front at night. In the distance at first, and then closer and closer with rifle fire gradually joining in. Half an hour later it all starts to die down again except for the countless flares in the sky. And further to the west we can see the beams of large searchlights and hear the constant roar of heavy naval guns.

The worst part of the life in the trenches was unquestionably the inescapable presence of death, in the form of tens of thousands of corpses in various stages of decay blanketing no-man’s-land, where they had lain unburied for weeks and months. The smell was omnipresent and overwhelming. The same anonymous nurse talked to another British officer, who’d been in the trenches in Flanders and “said no one could get into Messines, where there is only one house left standing, because of the unburied dead lying about."

Indeed, death permeated the physical environment. Further north, Christian Mallet, a French cavalryman stationed by the River Yser, recorded in his diary entry for January 25, 1915: “We made some tea, but the water came from the Yser, which was carrying down dead bodies, and the tea smelt of death. We could not drink it.”

Unsurprisingly daily contact with death had a profound psychological effect on soldiers, many of whom outwardly adopted a façade of fatalistic indifference, but inwardly were reeling from the traumatic impact of seeing dozens of friends, acquaintances, and family members killed in front of their eyes. However much they tried to suppress it, this trauma inevitably manifested in unexpected places, for example through dreams. In December 1914 a German soldier, Eduard Schmieder, described one such dream in a letter to a friend:

I was lying in an advance-post in a castle. I came into a room and as I entered a beautiful, ravishing woman advanced to meet me. I wanted to kiss her, but as I approached her I found a skull grinning at me. For one moment I was paralyzed with horror, but then I kissed the skull, kissed it so eagerly and violently that a fragment of its under-jaw remained between my lips. At the same moment this figure of death changed to that of my Anna – and then I must have woken up. That is the dream of how I embraced death.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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10 Unforgettable Facts About The Notebook
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New Line Cinema

In 1996, Nicholas Sparks published his first book, The Notebook. He would go on to write several more romance novels, many of which would be adapted into films. But 2004’s film adaption of The Notebook remains the highest-grossing Sparks adaptation, making $115 million worldwide against a $25 million budget. It was Rachel McAdams' breakout lead role (it was released just a few months after Mean Girls); it solidified Ryan Gosling as a “hey girl” heartthrob; and it swept all eight categories it was nominated for at the 2005 Teen Choice Awards, winning in categories like Choice Movie Love Scene and Choice Movie Liplock.

The book and movie follow a young couple named Noah (Gosling) and Allie (Adams) in 1940s North Carolina (the movie was filmed in South Carolina). Despite some obstacles, the couple fall in love, marry, and spend the next 60 years together. In present day, it’s revealed that Allie, now an old woman (played by Gena Rowlands), has Alzheimer’s, and her doting husband (James Garner, as an elderly Noah) helps her remember their storied past. In 2003, Sparks published a loose sequel called The Wedding, featuring the characters Allie and Noah. Here are 10 facts about the beloved romance.

1. IT WAS BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

Nicholas Sparks’s book was based on his then-wife Cathy's grandparents, who spent more than 60 years together. Cathy was close to her grandparents, and visited them frequently. The grandparents were too ill to attend their wedding, in 1989, so the newly-married couple brought the wedding to them. They dressed up in their wedding clothes and surprised them at their house. Cathy's grandparents told the Sparks how they met and fell in love, decades ago.

“But though their story was wonderful, what I most remember from that day is the way they were treating each other,” Sparks wrote on his website. “The way his eyes shined when he looked at her, the way he held her hand, the way he got her tea and took care of her. I remember watching them together and thinking to myself that after 60 years of marriage, these two people were treating each other exactly the same as my wife and I were treating each other after 12 hours. What a wonderful gift they’d given us, I thought, to show us on our first day of marriage that true love can last forever.”

Unfortunately for Nicholas and Cathy, their love didn’t last forever—they divorced in 2015

2. NICHOLAS SPARKS THINKS THE BOOK WAS SUCCESSFUL BECAUSE IT WAS RELATABLE.

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

“It seems that nearly everyone I spoke with about the novel knew a ‘Noah and Allie’ in their own life,” Sparks wrote on his website. He also said the book was short enough (224 pages) for people to read it quickly. “I think that readers also appreciate that the novel didn’t include foul language and its love scene was tasteful and mild compared to what’s found in many other novels,” he said. “These factors made people feel comfortable about recommending it to others.”

3. THE SCREENWRITER HAD TO WORK HARD TO MAKE THE CHARACTERS SEEM REAL.

The Notebook screenwriter Jeremy Leven had the daunting task of adapting Sparks's book into a script. “The problem with the book is that it’s melodramatic and sweet, and you have to find a way to appeal to an audience that is apprehensive about yet another sweet movie,” Leven told The Harvard Crimson. “So you have to give it an edge, make it real, and make the choices the characters face real.” That “edge” probably includes the love scene in the rain.

4. RACHEL MCADAMS AND RYAN GOSLING DIDN’T GET ALONG—AT FIRST.

Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

Even though they played lovers in the movie and then began dating in real life, the couple clashed during production. Director Nick Cassavetes told MTV a story about an incident when Gosling and McAdams weren’t getting along on the set one day: “Ryan came to me, and there’s 150 people standing in this big scene, and he says, ‘Nick come here,’” Cassavetes shared. “And he’s doing a scene with Rachel and he says, ‘Would you take her out of here and bring in another actress to read off camera with me?’ I said, ‘What?’ We went into a room with a producer; they started screaming and yelling at each other ... The rest of the film wasn’t smooth sailing, but it was smoother sailing.”

5. MCADAMS AND GOSLING’S ON-SCREEN CHEMISTRY PROBABLY WASN’T REAL.

“[Our later relationship] certainly wasn’t something that either of us had expected would come out of that filmmaking experience,” McAdams said, “which goes to show you that you can engineer chemistry on-screen just by telling the audience that these two people love each other.” She said it was attributed to the acting. “As an actor you don’t have to feel it. You don’t have to feel anything. Just imagine it.”

6. JESSICA BIEL WAS BUMMED SHE DIDN’T GET TO PLAY ALLIE.

Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for NBC

Unlike Gosling, McAdams had to audition for the role of Allie, and so did Jessica Biel. “I was in the middle of shooting Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I auditioned with Ryan Gosling in my trailer—covered in blood,” Biel told Elle. “That’s one that I wanted so badly. But there’s a million that get away. We’re gluttons for punishment. It’s just rejection.”

7. MCADAMS FELT A LOT OF PRESSURE TO DELIVER A GOOD PERFORMANCE.

The actress told Film Monthly she knew she had to be good in the movie, because she had to carry it. “At first I put way too much pressure on myself and realized that it wasn’t getting me anywhere,” she said. “I was just a ball of stress, and eventually the character kicked in where she’s sort of free-spirited, doesn’t care what people think, and chases down those things she wants.” She eventually found the right balance.

8. JAMES MARSDEN THOUGHT THE MOVIE WAS GOING TO BE “SCHMALTZY.”

Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

James Marsden played Allie’s fiancé—and Noah’s rival—Lon Hammond Jr. The actor told Out Magazine how he tries not to make a bad movie, but they sometimes turn out that way. “Then there are some movies that I’ve been in that I was sure people would laugh at, that have become huge,” he said. “I thought The Notebook was going to be a schmaltzy Movie of the Week–type thing, and here we are!”

9. NICK CASSAVETES WAS THE FOURTH CHOICE TO DIRECT THE MOVIE.

New Line Cinema acquired the rights to Sparks's novel in 1995, before the book was even published. In 1998, Variety reported that Steven Spielberg wanted to direct the film. Jim Sheridan was also interested, but he decided to direct In America instead. In 2001, The Mask of Zorro and GoldenEye director Martin Campbell almost signed on, but in 2002 New Line brought Cassavetes aboard.

10. JAMES GARNER RUINED HIS FIRST TAKE SHOOTING WITH GENA ROWLANDS.

Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

Nick Cassavetes—son of legendary director John Cassavetes—cast his mother, the great Gena Rowlands, as the elderly Allie. Garner recalled the first day he and Gena filmed together. “She's going to come out and I’m sitting on the porch in a chair or something. And I hear Nick say, ‘Okay, mom. Action.’ Well, I ruined that take because I just broke up. That was so funny. That tickled me to death. But he showed his mother great respect. He was gentle with her and worked with her. What I loved about it is that she listened to him. Here’s a professional actress who’s one of the best ever, and she’s listening to her son tell her about things. I really admired that in both of them.”

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13 Spooky Facts About The Monster Squad
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Lionsgate Home Entertainment

One part The Goonies, one part Ghostbusters, and one part Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, after being overlooked in its initial release, The Monster Squad has been reanimated as a cult classic. On the 30th anniversary of its release, let's take a look back at some of its behind-the-scenes trivia.

1. DIRECTOR FRED DEKKER WAS REJECTED BY TWO FILM SCHOOLS.

As a teenager, Fred Dekker applied to become a film student at both USC and UCLA. However, those universities both had other ideas. “Both film schools rejected me,” said Dekker on The Monster Squad’s 20th anniversary DVD, “but both accepted me in their curriculum, so I just couldn’t necessarily be in the film department.” The aspiring director enrolled at USC, where he reluctantly pursued a bachelor’s degree in English. “The fact that I was an English major was just kind of a nuisance. What I really wanted to do was just hang with my friends and make movies.”

2. THE FLICK GOT A BRIEF SHOUT-OUT IN NIGHT OF THE CREEPS.

When he received the greenlight for The Monster Squad (which he’d co-written with Shane Black), Dekker was busy shooting 1986’s Night of the Creeps. The cult classic involves alien parasites that enter their victims’ mouths and turn them into walking, braindead corpses. Pause the above trailer at the 29-second mark and, in a shameless plug, you’ll notice the words “Go Monster Squad!” conspicuously graffitied onto the bathroom wall.

3. THE CREATURE DESIGNERS WORKED HARD TO AVOID LEGAL PROBLEMS WITH UNIVERSAL.

First and foremost, The Monster Squad is an affectionate tribute to Universal’s iconic horror movies of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Nevertheless, the studio passed on producing the film, which was ultimately picked up by TriStar. This forced The Monster Squad’s visual effects team to get creative.

“Although we were doing a movie that was a takeoff on the Universal classics,” said legendary monster creator Stan Winston, “… none of our designs infringed on the original designs of the Universal characters. There were subtle changes; we had to be sure that nothing about them could be considered a copyright infringement of a design.” Which is why Dracula has no Lugosi-esque widow’s peak, Frankenstein monster’s neck bolts have migrated to his temples, and Wolfman has pointy ears and a face that Dekker describes as “more lupine” than what Universal had come up with.

4. CASTING THE MUMMY INVOLVED A BIZARRE WANT AD.

Mummies aren’t usually noted for their girth. “I’ve always been super skinny,” says actor Michael Reid MacKay. One fateful day, a friend pointed out an unusual casting advertisement in Variety. “It said, ‘Looking for an extremely thin actor on the verge of anorexia,” MacKay recalled. He headed straight for the studio and, after showing off some creepy gestures, won the part of the Mummy.

5. ASHLEY BANK TURNED DOWN A ROLE IN FATAL ATTRACTION TO PLAY FIVE-YEAR-OLD PHOEBE.

Lionsgate Home Entertainment

“Monster made me an offer first,” remembers Ashley Bank. “Had Fatal Attraction been shot in Los Angeles, I probably would have done both, but it was in New York, so I had to do The Monster Squad. My parents wanted me to have more fun. It was a bigger part, and it would be a kids’ movie that I could actually see … I never regretted it at all.”

6. AN EARLY DRAFT OF THE SCRIPT INVOLVED VAN HELSING FIGHTING DRACULA WITH MACHINE GUNS.

The Monster Squad co-writer Shane Black initially wanted a far more overblown—and expensive—opening scene. In the 2007 DVD documentary Monster Squad Forever, Dekker recalled that Black envisioned Van Helsing laying siege to Dracula’s castle “on a zeppelin with machine guns.” Racing out to meet him would be “40 vampire brides riding horses.” Dekker quickly burst Black’s bubble. “‘I said, ‘We can’t make this. This is the first five minutes of the movie and [we’d have] already spent … $100 million!’”

7. THE MONSTER SQUAD’S TREEHOUSE IS LITTERED WITH HORROR EASTER EGGS.

You’ve got to hand it to these kids: they know how to decorate. Wallpapering their arboreal hangout spot are posters and stills from movies that span the history of horror, including fan favorites like This Island Earth (1955), Vampire Circus (1972), and The Being (1983).

8. DUNCAN REGEHR BEAT OUT LIAM NEESON FOR THE ROLE OF DRACULA.

In 1986, Liam Neeson was still a relative unknown and, like many struggling actors, decided to try out for a horror movie. Apparently, he nailed his audition with a superb take on the Count. “We thought for sure we [were] going to hire this guy,” producer Jonathan Zimbert revealed in Monster Squad Forever. “Then Duncan came in and was not only as brilliant, but he was terrifying also.” Twenty years later, Wizard magazine named Regehr the “greatest Dracula of all time” for his chilling performance in The Monster Squad.

9. GILLMAN KO’D A STUNT MAN DURING THE FILM'S CLIMAX.

Creature builder Tom Woodruff, Jr. had always wanted to climb into a monster suit and wreak havoc in a major motion picture. With The Monster Squad, he smelled a golden opportunity. Late in the pre-production phase, nobody had yet been cast as Gillman (a.k.a. the Creature from the Black Lagoon). So Woodruff, who was working on Wolfman’s animatronics, asked to be considered for the job.

His wish was granted, but the gig wasn’t all fun and games. The Monster Squad’s final battle sees a few sherriff’s deputies clubbing the fishy humanoid. Though these prop weapons were soft on the outside, they had hard interiors. As sculptor Matt Rose notes 25 minutes into the clip below, Woodruff winced with every strike.

“They were wailing on him,” Rose recalled. “They’d stop and Tom would just say through the Gill mask ‘Hey guys, do you mind just taking it easy a little bit?” Alas, these pleas fell on deaf ears. After a few tiring takes, Rose remembers that, “One of the bigger guys was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Since Woodruff’s vision was limited by the suit, he didn’t see the stunt man and accidentally slugged him right in the face.

“[He] fell like a sack of potatoes, straight on his a**,” said Rose. For a few unsettling moments, the stunt man just laid there with a glazed look in his eyes. Evidently, there was a pair of badly-placed rivets on the inside of his helmet. The blow drove these into his forehead and, once the hat was removed, two streams of blood spurted forth. Thankfully, he wasn’t seriously hurt.

10. DRACULA AND FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER NEVER BROKE CHARACTER IN FRONT OF THE KIDS.

Tom Noonan (Frankenstein’s Monster) made it a point to never greet the young stars with anything more than a grunt, and he never let them see him without his monstrous makeup. “The first time that I met Tom, I was 25,” Ashley Bank quipped. “I never met Tom [on the set]. I only met Frankenstein.”

Regehr, too, always stayed in costume around the children. Yet, he did make one minor adjustment whenever Bank walked by: Near the end of the picture, the script calls for Dracula to lift up Phoebe by the chin; as he clutches her, his teeth sharpen, his eyes redden, and he lets loose a mighty hiss. To really get a good scare out of her, Regehr made sure that Bank never saw him wearing his fangs or crimson contact lenses. When the time came to shoot the moment in question, he put them on when she wasn’t looking.

Dekker—who knew all about Regher’s plan—told Bank “You’re gonna have to scream in this scene.” “When?” she asked. “Oh, you’ll know,” he replied. And sure enough, she did. Bank’s terrified cry was, in her own words, “100 percent real.”

11. WHILE DELIVERING THE FINAL LINE, ANDRE GOWER WAS TOLD TO IMITATE CLINT EASTWOOD.

Moments before the credits roll, a victorious Sean (Andre Gower) looks squarely at the camera lens and says “We’re The Monster Squad.” Wanting the line to sound cool without getting campy, Dekker instructed Gower to “do it like Clint.”

12. THE MOVIE SPENT JUST TWO WEEKS IN THEATERS.

Released on August 14, 1987, The Monster Squad was both a commercial and critical flop. Vincent Camby of The New York Times called it “a silly attempt to cross breed an Our Gang comedy with a classic horror film, which usually means that both genres have reached the end of the line.” After a two-week theatrical run, the movie was pulled. However, it slowly built a following via video rentals and cable broadcasts.

Today, The Monster Squad commands a dedicated fan base. When the cast and crew reunited for a special two-night showing at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in 2006, both screenings sold out. As Dekker once put it, “It took 20 years for the movie to find its audience.”

13. TRAGICALLY, BRENT CHALEM (“HORACE”) DIED OF PNEUMONIA AT AGE 22.

He’ll always be remembered for his talent, his warmth, and the immortal line “Wolfman’s got nards!”

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