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Battle of Neuve Chapelle

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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 173rd installment in the series.

March 10-13, 1915: Battle of Neuve Chapelle

The first big British offensive of the war took place at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle from March 10-13, 1915, when British, Indian, and Canadian troops captured the village of the same name, completely destroying it in the process. For these gains – a few miles of French countryside centered on a small patch of rubble – the British suffered a total of around 11,600 casualties, while inflicting around 10,000 on their German foes, in addition to 1,700 Germans taken prisoner. This they claimed as a victory, reflecting the drastic lowering of expectations that accompanied trench warfare.

The battle resulted in part from political and diplomatic tensions between the Allies: while they recognized British defensive prowess at Ypres and Givenchy, the French and Russians argued they were doing the lion’s share of the fighting (in Champagne and Poland, respectively) and demanded the British pull their weight by mounting more offensives of their own. On February 5, 1915, British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French told his officers that come spring he expected them to return to the attack, calling for constant raids to wear the Germans down through attrition and exhaustion. He also began planning a major offensive to demonstrate the British Army’s ability to undertake large-scale operations.

By early March there were half a million soldiers under British command in France, including Canadian and Indian troops, allowing French to present the forthcoming offensive as an “Imperial” venture, uniting all the patriotic elements of the British Empire. He assigned the task to the British First Army under Sir Douglas Haig, who shared his belief that victory at Neuve Chapelle might clear the way for a campaign to liberate Lille. Furthermore, an advance here might allow them to sever German rail communications to the south, threatening to cut off the entire German salient where it bulged into northern France. However as so often this proved wildly overoptimistic.

“Awful Tornado”

Having located a weak spot in the German defenses north of La Bassée and west of Aubers, in early March the British secretly assembled an overwhelming force, ultimately sending 48 British battalions numbering around 40,000 men against just three Westphalian battalions from the German Sixth Army under Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht. The attack would begin with the most intense bombardment in history on the morning of March 10, 1915, exceeding even the German onslaughts at Ypres, with over 500 guns of various calibers massed along a front just a few miles long (below, British field artillery in action).

After pulverizing the German trenches the big guns would gradually increase their range to provide a protective “creeping barrage,” behind which the attackers could advance in relative safety. The British employed aerial photography on a large scale for the first time at Neuve Chapelle, precisely mapping out the enemy trench system to guide the bombardment and infantry advance; during the battle British warplanes would also attack enemy communications and rail lines behind the front to prevent the Germans from bringing up reinforcements.

By all accounts the opening bombardment was utterly terrifying. Herbert Stewart, a British supply officer, described the incredible scenes of destruction his diary as hundreds of guns began firing at 7:30am on March 10:

As soon as the range had been accurately secured, a tremendous fire was opened on the village of Neuve Chapelle and the neighbouring trenches occupied by the enemy… Under this hail of flying metal, the village, the neighbouring trenches, and the whole German position selected for attack were blotted from sight under a pall of smoke and dust. The earth shook and the air was filled with the thunderous roar of the exploding shells. To the watching thousands the sight was a terrible one: amidst the clouds of smoke and dust they could see human bodies with earth and rock, portions of houses, and fragments of trench hurting through the air.

Another British soldier echoed Stewart’s account, providing an additional chilling detail:

[It] seemed impossible that any living thing could emerge from the wreckage created by that awful tornado of lyddite [high explosive] and shrapnel. Heads arms and legs and mangled bodies were flying about in horrible confusion; the upper half of a German officer, with the cap thrust down over the distorted face, fell in the front-line British trenches.

A few days later, on March 13, an anonymous British nurse recounted a conversation with wounded soldiers in her own diary, confirming these details: “Some of them who were near enough to see the effect of our bombardment on the enemy's trenches say they saw men, legs, and arms shot into the air. And the noise! – they gasp in telling you about it.”

In many places the shelling destroyed German trenches and sent the remaining defenders fleeing for safety, as hoped. But some German defenses were left more or less intact, and the initial infantry assault at 8:05am had uneven results. Leading the first wave were four battalions from the Indian Meerut Division, which succeeded in crossing no-man’s-land and occupying the German frontline and support trenches in just fifteen minutes, taking prisoner hundreds of stunned defenders, then pressing on to capture Neuve Chapelle itself around 9am (below, Indian soldiers at Neuve Chapelle).

The Indians had achieved a limited, temporary breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle, but the British weren’t able to exploit the tactical victory to achieve a decisive strategic victory – a common refrain in the First World War. Haig ordered a second attack in the northern sector by the British 7th and 8th Divisions, leading to heavy losses on both sides, including more German prisoners (below, Germans surrendering at Neuve Chapelle). Private Montague S. Goodbar of the Cameron Highlanders confided in his diary for March 10: “With the constant rapid fire my rifle steamed like a boiling kettle and became so hot that I could scarcely hold it. During this time I think we managed to bag a good few of the enemy between us. Their parapet was do badly damaged by our high explosives that they stuffed the gaps up with their dead.”

But the Germans rushed reinforcements to this area and eventually managed to reestablish a defensive line along the front, frustrating the British advance to both north and south and so preventing the two attacking forces from closing the pincer around them. In short, although the British has enough troops to achieve an initial breakthrough, they didn’t have enough reserves to continue the offensive by overrunning new German defenses.

Two days later, on March 12, 1915, German Sixth Army commander Crown Prince Rupprecht ordered a counterattack, which for the most part failed to eject the British from their hard-won positions, swiftly fortified with new trenches. Stewart described the bloody outcome of the German assault, led by officers who were the epitome of doomed valor:

A solid mass of men debouched from the trees, led by their officers, two of whom were mounted on horseback and headed the charge with drawn swords, as in the battles of a century ago. Such courage compels admiration, but it is madness in the face modern rifles and machine-guns. A murderous fire met the advancing German infantry, and in a few seconds that column of living men was but a heap of dead or writhing bodies, a sight so appalling as to sicken even the hardened soldiers who had seen eight months of slaughter.

As the battle swept back and forth across the battlefield from March 10-12, new areas suddenly became “no-man’s-land,” forcing both sides to leave wounded soldiers lying out as the battle unfolded, sometimes for days at a time. On March 12 Goodbar wrote: “We proceed to cross the field which was behind the original German trench. What a gruesome sight! Dead and wounded are strewn everywhere, the latter groaning and moaning in a most heartbreaking manner, there are British and Germans mixed up lying side by side, rifles and equipment everywhere.” An Indian officer, Amar Singh, painted a similar picture: “The place was very crowded and there was no end of the wounded which were being brought in on stretchers…  There was a terrible confusion… The Germans were shelling the road very hotly… On both sides of the road were lying the dead and the wounded. The groans of the latter were most pitiful.” William Boyd, working with a British field ambulance, described the scene in an improvised field hospital after two days of fighting:

The dressing-station was formerly a school, and every room was so packed with wounded, lying on stretchers on the floor, that it was with the greatest difficulty that we could move about. It was literally almost impossible to put your foot down without treading on a wounded man. The condition of the wounds was indescribable, for many of them were two days old, and during that time the wounded men had simply lain out on the battlefield, the furious fighting rendering the evacuation of casualties an impossibility… The head injuries were the most frightful, for in some cases the greater part of the face was smashed in by shrapnel, while in others the nose, eye, and greater part of the cheek had been torn away, leaving a great, red, bleeding cavity.

As if to symbolize the martyrdom of thousands of dead and wounded soldiers, after the battle the British discovered part of a damaged crucifix in Neuve Chapelle, the remnant of a destroyed church, which became known as “The Christ of the Trenches” (top). Unsurprisingly the incredible artillery barrages had reduced the village itself to rubble (above). And still fighting continued along the whole front, day in and day out. On March 15, 1915 a British volunteer nurse wrote:

Woke up just as we arrived at Bailleul to hear most incessant cannonade going on I ever heard, even at Ypres. The sky is continually lit up with the flashes from the guns – it is a pitch-dark night – and you can hear the roar of the howitzers above the thud-thud of the others… I have a boy of 22 with both legs off. He is dazed and white, and wants shifting very often. Each time you fix him up he says, “That's champion.”

 See the previous installment or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.