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.

11 Surprising Facts About Sylvester Stallone

Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As streetwise boxer Rocky Balboa (in eight films) and haunted Vietnam veteran John Rambo (in five films), the man born Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone has made his brand of muscular melodrama a staple of the action film genre across five decades.

The latest Rambo chapter, Rambo: Last Blood, opens September 20. In the meantime, check out some of the more intriguing facts about the actor, from his modest beginnings as an accidental porn star to his peculiar rivalry with Richard Gere to his waylaid plans to run a pudding empire.

1. An errant pair of forceps gave Sylvester Stallone his distinctive look.

Many comedians have paid their bills over the decades by adopting Sylvester Stallone’s distinctive lip droop and guttural baritone voice. The facial feature was the result of some slight mishandling at birth. When Stallone was born on July 6, 1946 in Manhattan, the physician used a pair of forceps to deliver him. The malpractice left his lip, chin, and part of his tongue partially paralyzed due to a severed nerve. Stallone later said his face and awkward demeanor earned him the nickname “Sylvia” and authority figures telling him his brain was “dormant.” Burdened with low self-esteem, Stallone turned to bodybuilding and later performing as a way of breaking through what seemed to be a consensus of low expectations.

2. sylvester Stallone attended college in Switzerland.

A publicity still of Sylvester Stallone from the 1981 film 'Victory' is pictured
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite a tumultuous adolescence in which he was kicked out of several schools for misbehavior, Stallone eventually graduated high school while living with his mother in Philadelphia. He went on to attend American College, a university in Leysin, Switzerland, where he also worked as a gym teacher and dorm bouncer in addition to selling hamburgers on campus. It was there he became interested in theater—both acting and writing.

Stallone continued his education at the University of Miami before moving to New York with the hopes of breaking into the entertainment industry. While auditioning for parts, Stallone worked as a movie theater usher and cleaned lion cages at the zoo. He was fired from the theater for trying to scalp tickets to a customer. Unknown to Stallone, the customer was the theater owner.

3. Sylvester Stallone’s mother was an expert in “rumpology.”

Stallone’s parents separated while he was still a child. His father, a beauty salon owner named Francesco Stallone, was apparently prone to corporal punishment, and would cuff his young son for misbehavior. (Stallone was once caught swatting flies with a lead pipe on the hood of his father’s brand-new car.) His mother, Jackie Stallone—whom he once described as “half-French, half-Martian"—later grew interested in the study of rumpology, or the study of the buttocks to reveal personality traits and future events.

4. Sylvester Stallone had a small part in a porno.

Actor Sylvester Stallone is pictured during a promotional tour for the film 'Rambo' in Madrid, Spain in January 2008
Carlos Alvarez, Getty Images

While struggling to make it as an actor, Stallone was talked into making an appearance in Party at Kitty and Stud’s, a 1970 softcore adult film that was not as explicit as other sex features of the era but still required Stallone to appear in the nude. While he was initially hesitant to take the role, Stallone was sleeping in a bus shelter at the time. He took the $200 for two days of work. Following the success of Rocky in 1976, the film’s producers capitalized on their now-valuable footage and re-released it under the title The Italian Stallion. In 2010, a 35mm negative of the film and all worldwide rights to it were auctioned off on eBay for $412,100.

5. Sylvester Stallone wrote a novel.

In addition to his acting ambitions, Stallone decided to pursue a career in writing. After numerous screenplays, he wrote Paradise Alley, a novel about siblings who get caught up in the circus world of professional wrestling in Hell’s Kitchen. Stallone finished the novel before deciding to turn it into a screenplay. Paradise Alley was eventually produced in 1978. The book, which was perceived as a novelization, was published that same year.

6. Sylvester Stallone was not a fan of the Rambo cartoon series.

After the success of 1982’s First Blood and 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, Stallone was confronted with a litany of Rambo merchandising. Speaking with the Chicago Tribune in 1986, he said he disliked that the psychologically-tortured war veteran was being used to peddle toys. “I couldn’t control it,” he said. “I tried to stop it, but I don’t own the licensing rights.”

On the subject of Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a 1986 animated series featuring a considerably softened-up version of the character, Stallone was resigned. “They’re going to make this Saturday morning TV cartoon show for kids with what they tell me is a softened version of Rambo doing good deeds. First of all, that isn’t Rambo, but more important, they tell me I can’t stop them because it’s not me they’re using. It’s a likeness of a character I played and don’t own.” The show lasted just one season.

7. Sylvester Stallone never planned on the Rocky series enduring as long as it has.

Through the years, Stallone has made some definitive declarations about the Rocky series, which has been extended to eight films including its two spin-off installments, 2015’s Creed and 2018’s Creed II. Speaking with movie critic Roger Ebert in 1979 shortly before the release of Rocky II, Stallone indicated Rocky III that would conclude the series. “There’ll never be a Rocky IV,” he said. "You gotta call it a halt.” In 1985, while filming Rocky IV, Stallone told Interview magazine that he was finished. “Oh, this is it for Rocky,” he said. “Because I don’t know where you go after you battle Russia.” In 1990, following the release of Rocky V, Stallone declared that “There is no Rocky VI. He’s done.” Upon the release of Rocky Balboa in 2006, Stallone once more declared he was finished. "I couldn't top this," he told People. "I would have to wait another 10 years to build up a head of steam, and by that point, come on."

Creed was released nine years later. Following Creed II, he posted a message on Instagram that served as a “final farewell” to the character. Several months later, in July 2019, Stallone told Variety that, “There’s a good chance Rocky may ride again” and explained an idea involving Rocky befriending an immigrant street fighter. It would be the ninth film in the series.

8. Sylvester Stallone was offered the lead role in Beverly Hills Cop.

Actor Sylvester Stallone is pictured during production of the 1978 film 'Paradise Alley'
Central Press/Getty Images

In one of the more intriguing alternate casting decisions in Hollywood history, Stallone was originally offered the Axel Foley role in 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop. Not wishing to make a comedy, Stallone rewrote the script to focus more on the action, as Detroit cop Foley stampedes through Beverly Hills to find his friend’s killers. Stallone described his version as resembling “the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan on the beaches of Normandy” and said his climax involved a game of chicken between a Lamborghini and an oncoming train. Producers opted to go in another direction. It became one of Eddie Murphy’s biggest hits. Stallone would later use some of his ideas for a rogue cop in the 1986 film Cobra.

9. Sylester Stallone does not get along with Richard Gere.

While filming 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush, in which Stallone and then-unknown actor Richard Gere both played 1950s street toughs, the two actors apparently got off on the wrong foot. Stallone recalled that Gere drew his ire for being too physical during rehearsals—and worse, getting mustard on Stallone during a lunch break. Incensed, Stallone demanded the director choose one of them to stay and one of them to be fired. Gere was let go and replaced by Perry King.

10. Arnold Schwarzenegger once tricked sylvester stallone into starring in a box office bomb.

Actors Sylvester Stallone (L) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) are photographed during the premiere of 'The Expendables 2' in Hollywood, California in August 2012
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Stallone has often discussed his rivalry with Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the two action stars were believed to be the two biggest marquee attractions in the 1980s. Recalling his 1992 bomb Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Stallone told a journalist in 2014 that he believed Schwarzenegger was to blame. “I heard Arnold wanted to do that movie and after hearing that, I said I wanted to do it,” he said. “He tricked me. He’s always been clever.”

11. sylvester Stallone wanted to create a pudding empire.

In 2005, shortly before Rocky Balboa resurrected his film career, Stallone embarked on a line of fitness supplements. His company, Instone, produced a pudding snack that was low-carb and high in protein. Stallone even appeared on Larry King to hawk the product. A legal dispute with a food scientist over the rights to the concoction dragged on for years and Instone eventually folded.

Highclere Castle—the Real-Life Downton Abbey—Is Available to Rent on Airbnb

Highclere Castle, used as the setting for Downton Abbey
Highclere Castle, used as the setting for Downton Abbey
Emily_M_Wilson/iStock via Getty Images

Have you ever wanted to spend a night in a castle? And not just any castle—the Downton Abbey castle, Highclere Castle? On November 26, one lucky couple will get the opportunity to relive the TV show and movie, when castle owners Lady and Lord Carnarvon will cordially invite one person and their guest of choice to spend the night in the castle, which is located in Hampshire, England—about 45 miles west of London. On October 1 (Airbnb reservations go live at noon BST) anyone with a verified profile, positive reviews, and passion for Downton Abbey can vie for the opportunity. Even though the castle has 300 rooms, they are only making one bedroom available, for $159.

Upon arrival, the royals will host cocktails with the guests in the saloon. Visitors will hear stories from more than 300 years of Highclere Castle history (construction on the castle began in 1679, and has been in the Carnarvon family ever since).

“I am passionate about the stories and heritage of Highclere Castle and I am delighted to be able to share it with others who have a love of the building and its history,” Lady Carnarvon said in the Airbnb listing.

The Earl and Countess will host a dinner for the guests in the state dining room, and afterwards have coffee in the library. Before bed, the guests’ butler will escort them to their gallery bedroom. The next morning, guests will receive a complimentary breakfast, a private tour of the 100,000-square foot castle and 1000-acre grounds, and a special gift from the Carnarvons. (Airbnb will also make a donation to The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.)

It should be noted the castle doesn’t have Wi-Fi or central air, but it does have fireplaces and central heat. There are a few rules guests must follow, though: all newspapers must be ironed; one butler per person; cocktail dress is required at dinner; gossip is restricted to downstairs; the listing is midweek because, as the Dowanger once said, “What is a weekend?”

If you don’t win the opportunity to stay at Highclere, all is not lost: you can tour the castle year-round.

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