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Battle of Neuve Chapelle

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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Netflix's Most-Binged Shows of 2017, Ranked
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Netflix might know your TV habits better than you do. Recently, the entertainment company's normally tight-lipped number-crunchers looked at user data collected between November 1, 2016 and November 1, 2017 to see which series people were powering through and which ones they were digesting more slowly. By analyzing members’ average daily viewing habits, they were able to determine which programs were more likely to be “binged” (or watched for more than two hours per day) and which were more often “savored” (or watched for less than two hours per day) by viewers.

They found that the highest number of Netflix bingers glutted themselves on the true crime parody American Vandal, followed by the Brazilian sci-fi series 3%, and the drama-mystery 13 Reasons Why. Other shows that had viewers glued to the couch in 2017 included Anne with an E, the Canadian series based on L. M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, and the live-action Archie comics-inspired Riverdale.

In contrast, TV shows that viewers enjoyed more slowly included the Emmy-winning drama The Crown, followed by Big Mouth, Neo Yokio, A Series of Unfortunate Events, GLOW, Friends from College, and Ozark.

There's a dark side to this data, though: While the company isn't around to judge your sweatpants and the chip crumbs stuck to your couch, Netflix is privy to even your most embarrassing viewing habits. The company recently used this info to publicly call out a small group of users who turned their binges into full-fledged benders:

Oh, and if you're the one person in Antarctica binging Shameless, the streaming giant just outed you, too.

Netflix broke down their full findings in the infographic below and, Big Brother vibes aside, the data is pretty fascinating. It even includes survey data on which shows prompted viewers to “Netflix cheat” on their significant others and which shows were enjoyed by the entire family.

Netflix infographic "The Year in Bingeing"
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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
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Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


Paramount Pictures

First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


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In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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