Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes

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 167th installment in the series. 

February 7, 1915: Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes 

Following Russia’s disastrous defeat at Tannenberg, the Eastern Front began to look like a seesaw, or occasionally a revolving door, as both sides took turns attacking, shifting their forces and looking for weak spots in the enemy line, only to see their offensives run out of steam before reaching their objectives (Warsaw and Lemberg for the Germans, Krakow and Silesia for the Russians). During this period there were limited gains, as the Russians managed to conquer and hold the northeastern Austrian province of Galicia, laying siege to the strategic fortress town of Przemyśl, while the Germans established a defensive perimeter by occupying a strip of territory inside Russian Poland. But neither side was able to parlay these advances into a decisive breakthrough. 

This dynamic continued through the winter of 1914-1915, as the Russians called up millions of new troops and created three new armies—the Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth—with the intention of resuming the offensive against East Prussia. For their part the Germans, having decided on the New Year to shift their focus to the Eastern Front, transferred troops from the Western Front to create the new South Army (Südarmee), bolstering the forces of their hapless ally Austria-Hungary, while to the north they also created a new Tenth Army in East Prussia and a new army group under General Max von Gallwitz (from August 1915 the Twelfth Army). 


Click to enlarge 

On February 7, 1915, the German commander-in-chief on the Eastern Front, Paul von Hindenburg—assisted, as always, by his brilliant chief of staff Erich Ludendorff—preempted the planned Russian invasion of East Prussia with a surprise attack by the Eighth Army under Otto von Below, catching the Russian Tenth Army under Thadeus von Sievers unprepared, while the Russian Twelfth Army was still mobilizing. The Germans hit the Russians in the eastern Masurian Lakes region, the site of a previous victory (the battle is also called the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes).

This daring offensive, launched in the middle of a snowstorm, forced the Russians into a chaotic retreat through frozen swamps and forests filled with snowdrifts. By the end of the first week the Germans had advanced 70 miles, crossing the East Prussian border and threatening a total encirclement; indeed by the end of the second week the Russian 20th Army Corps was cut off in the Augustowo Forest, a dense old-growth forest crisscrossed by small lakes, and forced to surrender. The Germans also took huge numbers of prisoners, while thousands of Russian soldiers were incapacitated by frostbite. 

The rout only came an end on February 21-22, 1915, when the Russian Tenth Army dug in along new defensive positions southeast of the Augustowo Forest, while the Russian Twelfth Army finally rumbled into action, threatening the German Eighth Army’s right flank from the southwest. 

 

Once again the cost of defeat for the Russians was mind-boggling, with the Tenth Army suffering around 200,000 casualties, including killed, wounded, prisoners and missing (above, Russian POWs). An American correspondent, Edward L. Fox, described the aftermath in former Russian trenches captured by the Germans near the Forest of Augustowo: 

Further on in the field… I saw a shapeless heap of men, and then another heap, and another, until I had counted six… I had never seen such men before. They were men postured like jumping jacks only their legs and arms were still. They were men who seemed standing on their heads, their feet over the trench top, turned soles up to the sky. Somehow, they gave you the impression of being all legs and arms,– stiff grotesque legs, stiff grotesque arms. They all seemed lumpy, all but one, and he was standing up… and he was standing because the piled dead braced him so that he could not fall.

By comparison the Germans lost "just" 16,000 men in all categories. And once again Hindenburg and Ludendorff had destroyed a Russian threat against East Prussia – but were unable to turn their victory into a knockout blow, as the Austro-German forces on the southern half of the front remained bogged down in the northern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.

Eastern Abattoir 

Meanwhile smaller engagements continued along the length of the Eastern Front, adding to the toll of dead and wounded. John Morse, an Englishman serving with the Russians in central Poland in February 1915, recalled horrifying scenes in captured German trenches, in a battlefield full of dead bodies stacked on one another: 

They lay thickest in and about the trenches. In the bottom of the advanced trenches there was a foot depth of blood which had drained from the corpses… the men occupying the position were compelled to stand in it half-leg deep for several days until an opportunity came to clean the trenches, when the congealed horror was removed… and buried by the ton in holes dug for the purpose. In one part of the trench I helped remove a heap of sixty-nine corpses, lying eleven deep in the middle… [some] had been smothered under the weight of their dead comrades, or trampled to death. 

And yet amid all the horror there were still moments of humanity between enemy soldiers, as individuals. J.M. Beaufort, an American observer with the German army, described the following vignette after the Winter Battle of Masurian Lakes:

One cold and grey morning, while driving through the extensive forests of Augustowo, we came across a scene that would have touched a heart of stone. A giant Russian was sitting cross-legged in oriental fashion in the snow. On his lap lay pillowed the head of a German private, whose stark body, long since cold and dead, was covered with the Russian’s overcoat. An empty flask lay beside them in the snow. The Russian’s left sleeve was soaked with blood, and, on investigation, we found that his elbow was completely smashed. And the man’s sole comment was: “Nitchewo.” [“It is nothing.”]

See the previous installment or all entries.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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