Germans Repulsed at Givenchy

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.

10 Timeless Facts About The Land Before Time

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Five years before Jurassic Park roared into theaters, a gentler, more meditative dinosaur film endeared itself to audiences of all ages. Initially met with mixed reviews, The Land Before Time is now regarded as an animated classic. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the Steven Spielberg-produced film, which arrived in theaters 30 years ago.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A DIALOGUE-FREE MOVIE.

Gabriel Damon and Candace Hutson in The Land Before Time (1988)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In the mid-1980s, executive producer Steven Spielberg began toying with the idea of a Bambi-esque dinosaur film. “Basically,” he later said, “I wanted to do a soft picture … about five little dinosaurs and how they grow up and work together as a group.” Inspiration came from the “Rite of Spring” sequence from Disney’s Fantasia (1940)—a scene in which prehistoric beasts wordlessly go about their business. At first, Spielberg wanted his own dinosaur characters to follow suit and remain mum. Ultimately, however, it was feared that a non-verbal approach might bore or confuse the film’s intended audience. As such, the animals were given lines.

2. DIRECTOR DON BLUTH WAS AN EX-DISNEY EMPLOYEE.

Don Bluth grew up idolizing Disney’s work, and began working for the studio in 1955. Over the next two decades, he did various odd jobs until he was brought on as a full-time animator in 1971. Once on the inside, Bluth got to peek behind the magician’s curtain—and disliked what he found there. “I think [Walt Disney] would’ve seen that the pictures were losing their luster,” Bluth said. Frustrated by the studio’s cost-cutting measures, he resigned in 1979. Joining him were fellow animators Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. Together the trio launched their own company, Sullivan Bluth Studios, and began working on The Land Before Time in 1986.

3. OVER 600 BACKGROUND PAINTINGS WERE MADE FOR THE FILM.

Most of these depicted beautiful but barren wastelands, which presented a real challenge for the creative team. As one studio press release put it, “The artists had to create a believable environment in which there was almost no foliage.” Whenever possible, Bluth’s illustrators emphasized vibrant colors. This kept their backdrops from looking too drab or monotonous—despite the desolate setting.

4. LITTLEFOOT’S ORIGINAL NAME WAS “THUNDERFOOT.”

This was changed when the filmmakers learned that there was a triceratops in a popular children’s book called Thunderfoot. Speaking of three-horned dinosaurs: Cera evolved from a pugnacious male character called Bambo.

5. THE FILMMAKERS HAD TO CUT ABOUT 10 MINUTES OF FOOTAGE.

“We compromised a lot with The Land Before Time,” Goldman admitted. Nowhere was this fact more apparent than on the cutting room floor. Spielberg and his fellow executive producer George Lucas deemed 19 individual scenes “too scary.” “We’ll have kids crying in the lobby, and angry parents,” Spielberg warned. “You don’t want that.”

6. “ROOTER” WAS INTRODUCED AT THE URGING OF CHILD PSYCHOLOGISTS.

In Bambi, the title character’s mom dies off-screen. The same cannot be said for Littlefoot’s mother, whose slow demise goes on for several agonizing minutes. Naturally, there was some concern about how children would react to this. “A lot of research went into the mother dying sequence,” Pomeroy said. “Psychologists were approached and shown the film. They gave their professional opinions of how the sequence could be depicted.” Thus, Rooter was born.

One scene after Littlefoot’s mom passes, the wise reptile consoles him, saying “You’ll always miss her, but she’ll always be with you as long as you remember the things she taught you.” Sharp-eared fans might recognize Rooter’s voice as that of Pat Hingle, who also narrates the movie.

7. JAMES HORNER DID THE SOUNDTRACK.

The late, Oscar-winning composer behind Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009) put together a soaring score. Along with lyricist Will Jennings, he also penned the original song “If We Hold On Together,” which Diana Ross sings as the end credits roll.

8. THE ACTRESS BEHIND DUCKY PASSED AWAY BEFORE THE MOVIE’S RELEASE.

Judith Barsi’s career was off to a great start. By age 10, this daughter of Hungarian immigrants had already appeared in 70 commercials and voiced the leading lady in Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). For The Land Before Time, Barsi voiced the ever-optimistic Ducky, which was reportedly her favorite role. Then tragedy struck: In July of 1988, Barsi’s father József murdered both her and her mother before taking his own life.

9. IT HAD A RECORD-SETTING OPENING WEEKEND.

From the get-go, The Land Before Time had some stiff competition. Universal released it on November 18, 1988—the same day that Disney’s Oliver & Company hit theaters. Yet, for a solid month, Bluth gave Oliver a box office beating. The Land Before Time enjoyed the highest-grossing opening weekend that any animated film had ever seen, pulling in $7.5 million to Oliver & Company’s $4 million. Since then, of course, The Land Before Time has long been dethroned; today, Incredibles 2 (2018) holds this coveted distinction with a $182.7 million first-weekend showing.

10. THERE ONCE WAS TALK OF A LAND BEFORE TIME STAGE MUSICAL.

“The time has come for dinosaurs on Broadway,” the late theatrical producer Irving Welzer told The New York Times in 1997. Emboldened by the recent cinematic success of Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), Welzer expressed an interest helping Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, and the rest of the gang make their Big Apple debut. Soon, however, the idea faded.

Billie Lourd Shares What (Very Little) She Can About Star Wars: Episode IX

Frazer Harrison, Getty Images
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

​Nearly nothing is known about the final film in the latest Star Wars series, except that J.J. Abrams, who helmed The Force Awakens, will be returning as director, and many of the cast members from both Abrams's earlier effort and The Last Jedi will be reprising their roles. Even the late Carrie Fisher, who sadly passed away on December 27, 2016, will be included in Episode IX, through unused footage from the previous two films.

Though all the stars of the upcoming film are sworn to secrecy about it, Fisher's daughter, Billie Lourd, is spilling what she can. Lourd, who played the minor role of Lieutenant Connix in the last two films, teased what it was like being back on set.

"I gotta watch myself because the Star Wars PD is going to come get me, but it is incredible. I’ve read the script and I’ve been on set," Lourd told ​Entertainment Tonight. "I was on set for, like, three weeks back in September, and it is going to be magical. I can’t say much more, but I’m so excited about it and so grateful to be a part of it. Star Wars is my heart. I love it."

A lot of things are riding on Episode IX, especially considering how divided fans were over The Last Jedi. Though with Abrams back in the director's chair, it seems likely that the new film will be a return to form. The as-yet-untitled film hits theaters on December 20, 2019.

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