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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.

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20 John Carpenter Quotes About Horror Movies
Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Though he’s made a variety of movies—from fantasy to science fiction films—John Carpenter will forever be known as a master of horror, thanks in large part to the role he played in reinventing the genre with 1978’s Halloween. To celebrate the award-winning filmmaker’s 70th birthday, we’ve gathered up 20 of his most memorable quotes about Hollywood.

1. ON THE DEFINITION OF HORROR

“Horror is a reaction; it's not a genre.”

—From a 2015 interview with Interview Magazine

2. ON THE RULES OF MOVIEMAKING

“I think the rules of filmmaking are essentially the same as they were since, I guess, The Birth Of A Nation. The way you make movies: long shot, close-up, camera movement, structure—it’s all the same. Not much has changed. But the technology of movies has vastly changed. From 35mm black-and-white to color, from nitrate film to safety film and now into digital—and yet we’re still breaking scenes into master shots and close-ups. The cinema narrative has not changed that much since the silent film.”

—From a 2015 interview with The A.V. Club

3. ON THE TWO TYPES OF HORROR STORIES

“There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart.”

—From a 2011 interview with Vulture

4. ON THE IMPORTANCE OF NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

“One movie that showed me it was possible to make a low-budget horror movie was Night of the Living Dead (1968). When I saw that, I was like, 'Wow, that's really effective, but it's obviously low budget.' They didn't have any money but they actually made something cool. That was inspirational to me when I was in film school.”

—From a 2015 interview with Interview Magazine

5. ON THE TRUTH ABOUT HOLLYWOOD

“Film buffs who don't live in Hollywood have a fantasy about what it's like to be a director. Movies and the people who make movies have such glamor associated with them. But the truth is, it's not like that. It's very different. It's hard work. If you were suddenly catapulted into that situation—without any training—you would say after it was over: 'Oh, God! You're kidding! You mean, this is what it's like? This is what they put you through?' Yes, as a matter of fact, it is like this—and it's often worse. People have tried to describe the film business, but it's impossible to describe because it's so crazy. You must know your craft inside out and then pick up the rules as you go along.”

—From an essay for Santa Fe Studios

6. ON THE HORROR OF WATCHING HIS OWN MOVIES

“I don't watch my films. I've seen 'em enough after cutting them and putting the music on. I don't ever want to see them again.”

—From a 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly

7. ON THE EMOTIONAL TOLL MAKING MOVIES CAN TAKE ON A DIRECTOR

“I’ve been feeling old for years and years, and I think the movie business did it to me. At one point I just did movie after movie, and it starts tearing you down physically—emotionally too, if you do one after another. The stress, the emotional exertion of dealing with others. I’ve worked with really great actors and really difficult actors. The difficult ones are no fun. And the style of the movies today have changed a great deal. To me, I’m not a big fan of handheld. That’s just my tastes. That’s a quick fix for low budget. Let the operator direct it! Walk around. That’s how you burn through the pages. And found footage—how many times do we need to do that?”

—From a 2014 interview with Deadline

8. ON WHAT MAKES A GOOD HORROR FILM

“There’s a very specific secret: It should be scary.”

—From a 2015 interview with The A.V. Club

9. ON THE PERCEPTION OF A MOVIEMAKER

“In England, I'm a horror movie director. In Germany, I'm a filmmaker. In the U.S., I'm a bum.”

—From The Films of John Carpenter

10. ON STANDING OUT

“I don't want to be in the mainstream. I don't want to be a part of the demographics. I want to be an individual. I wear each of my films as a badge of pride. That's why I cherish all my bad reviews. If the critics start liking my movies, then I'm in deep trouble.”

—From an essay for Santa Fe Studios

11. ON MAINTAINING CONTROL

“My years in the business have taught me not to worry about what you can’t control.”

—From a 2007 interview with MovieMaker Magazine

12. ON HIS FAVORITE MOVIES

“I have two different categories of favorite films. One is the emotional favorites, which means these are generally films that I saw when I was a kid; anything you see in your formative years is more powerful, because it really stays with you forever. The second category is films that I saw while I was learning the craft of motion pictures.”

—From a 2011 interview with Rotten Tomatoes

13. ON BEING STUCK IN THE 1980S

“Well, They Live was a primal scream against Reaganism of the '80s. And the '80s never went away. They're still with us. That's what makes They Live look so fresh—it's a document of greed and insanity. It's about life in the United States then and now. If anything, things have gotten worse.”

—From a 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly

14. ON THE IMPORTANCE OF INSTINCT

“I think every director depends primarily on his instincts. That’s what’s got him where he is, what’s going to carry him through the good times and the bad. I generally go with what I instinctually think I can do well.”

—From a 2011 interview with Vulture

15. ON BEING TYPECAST AS A DIRECTOR

“I haven't just made horror. I've made all sorts of movies. There have been fantasy movies, thrillers, horrors, science fiction. In terms of the ultimate reward, listen, man, when I was a kid, when I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a movie director, and I got to be a movie director. I lived my f*cking dream, you can't get better than that. That's the ultimate.”

—From a 2015 interview with Interview Magazine

16. ON THE REALITY OF MONSTERS

“Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or the other. They’re us with hats on. The zombies in George Romero’s movies are us. They’re hungry. Monsters are us, the dangerous parts of us. The part that wants to destroy; the part of us with the reptile brain. The part of us that’s vicious and cruel. We express these in our stories as these monsters out there.”

—From a 2011 interview with the Buenos Aires Herald

17. ON MOVIES AS A SENSORY EXPERIENCE

“A movie’s not just the pictures. It’s the story and it’s the perspective and it’s the tempo and it’s the silence and it’s the music—it’s all the stuff that’s going on. All the sensory stuff. Sometimes you can get a lot of suspense going in a non-horror film. It all depends. But, look, if there was one secret way of doing a horror movie then everybody would be doing it.”

—From a 2015 interview with The A.V. Club

18. ON THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE OF HORROR

"Horror is a universal language; we're all afraid. We're born afraid, we're all afraid of things: death, disfigurement, loss of a loved one. Everything that I'm afraid of, you're afraid of and vice versa. So everybody feels fear and suspense. We were little kids once and so it's taking that basic human condition and emotion and just f*cking with it and playing with it. You can invent new horrors."

—From a 2015 interview with Interview Magazine

19. ON THE REMAKE TREND

“It’s a brand new world out there in terms of trying to get advertising. There’s so much going on that if you come up with a movie that people have never heard of they don’t pay attention to it—no matter how good it is. So it becomes, 'Let’s remake something that maybe rings a bell and that you’ve heard of before.' That way, you’re already ahead. I’m flattered, but I understand what’s going on. They’re picking everything to remake. I think they’ve just run down the list of other titles and have finally got to mine.”

—From a 2007 interview with MovieMaker Magazine

20. ON THE LASTING INFLUENCE OF HALLOWEEN

“I didn’t think there was any more story [to Halloween], and I didn’t want to do it again. All of my ideas were for the first Halloween—there shouldn’t have been any more! I’m flattered by the fact that people want to remake them, but they remake everything these days, so it doesn’t make me that special. But Michael Myers was an absence of character. And yet all the sequels are trying to explain that. That’s silliness—it just misses the whole point of the first movie, to me. He’s part person, part supernatural force. The sequels rooted around in motivation. I thought that was a mistake. However, I couldn’t stop them from making sequels. So my agents said, ‘Why don’t you become an executive producer and you can share the revenue?’ But I had to write the second movie, and every night I sat there and wrote with a six-pack of beer trying to get through this thing. And I didn’t do a very good job, but that was it. I couldn’t do any more."

—From a 2014 interview with Deadline

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15 Surprising Facts About Half Baked
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

You may have known these facts about Half Baked—Tamra Davis's stoner comedy starring Dave Chappelle, Guillermo Díaz, and Jim Breuer—at one point. But it’s easy to see how the film, which was released 20 years ago, could make viewers a little forgetful.

1. THE SCRIPT WAS A TEAM EFFORT.

Half Baked was written by star Dave Chappelle and his writing partner Neal Brennan. Five years later, the duo would go on to co-create Chappelle’s Show for Comedy Central. (Brennan even has a cameo in Half Baked as the cashier at the burger joint where Scarface works.)

2. NEW YORK CITY WAS A KEY INSPIRATION.

Chappelle was inspired to write Half Baked after a friend told him about New York City drug dealers who conveniently deliver illicit substances to customers’ apartments.

3. THE OPENING SCENE WAS A RISK FOR THE STUDIO.

The studio originally wanted to cut the opening scene showing kids smoking marijuana and getting the munchies, but decided to keep it after audiences at test screenings found it hilarious.

4. DIRECTING IT WAS A NO-BRAINER FOR TAMRA DAVIS.

Tamra Davis
Francois Durand/Getty Images

It's a good thing that opening scene stayed in, as it's what sold Tamra Davis on the project. In fact, she only read 10 pages of Chappelle and Brennan’s script before accepting the directing job.

"The reason why I wanted to do this movie was because the opening scene is so funny," she told Mass Appeal in 2017. "And they were like, 'No, it sends a bad message, kids smoking pot.' I was like, 'Can I screen the movie? Nobody’s ever seen this movie, can we look at it first and see how the movie plays before you guys start giving me cuts?'"

5. THE FILM HAS A MUSIC VIDEO PEDIGREE.

Davis is also humorously listed as the director of Sir Smoka Lot’s “Samson Gets Me Lifted” music video in the film. Prior to directing feature films like Half Baked and Billy Madison, Davis directed more than 30 actual music videos, including Tone Lōc’s “Wild Thing” and Hanson’s “MMMBop.”

6. MOST OF "NEW YORK" IS REALLY TORONTO.

The film was shot over 40 days, primarily in Toronto. Three days of exterior shooting were done in New York to feature landmarks like Washington Square Park.

7. PRODUCERS PULLED OUT ALL THE STOPS ON CAMEOS.

Tracy Morgan makes a cameo as the VJ who introduces Sir Smoka Lot’s music video. Other cameos in the film include Jon Stewart, Tommy Chong, Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Janeane Garofalo, and Bob Saget.

8. THERE WAS A REAL GUY ON THE COUCH.

The Guy on the Couch was inspired by a friend of Chappelle’s who constantly crashed on Chappelle’s couch while he and Brennan toiled away at writing the screenplay. In the film, the role of the Guy went to comedian Steven Wright.

9. THE BEASTIE BOYS INSPIRED THE FILM'S DESIGN.

Davis drew inspiration of the prop and color design of the guys’ apartment from the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal Recording Studios. The connection makes sense, as Davis was married to Mike D of the Beastie Boys.

10. THE PRISON HAD VERY CLEAN WATER.

The exterior of the prison where Kenny is locked up is actually the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant in Toronto. (The same facility played the role of Elsinore Brewery in 1983's Strange Brew.)  Some prison interiors, including the cafeteria scenes, where shot in an actual prison.

11. THE DIRECTOR HAS A TINY CAMEO.

All the acting with Killer’s fake dog paws was done on-set by Davis.

12. THE CAST GOT GREAT SOUVENIRS.

Many members of the cast and crew kept blocks of the fake medicinal marijuana as a joke after production wrapped.

13. NO, THAT'S NOT JERRY GARCIA.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Jerry Garcia did not appear in Half Baked. Garcia is played by impersonator David Bluestein.

14. ALL THAT "POT" WAS TOBACCO.

The actors smoked a tobacco-based substitute to stand in for marijuana in the film (though there are some rumors that the scene featuring Snoop Dogg featured real marijuana).

15. IT ALMOST HAD A DARKER ENDING.

The original ending of the movie was supposed to be much darker. In it, Thurgood abandoned his girlfriend Mary Jane and jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge after the joint he threw away.

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