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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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10 Unforgettable Facts About The Notebook
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New Line Cinema

In 1996, Nicholas Sparks published his first book, The Notebook. He would go on to write several more romance novels, many of which would be adapted into films. But 2004’s film adaption of The Notebook remains the highest-grossing Sparks adaptation, making $115 million worldwide against a $25 million budget. It was Rachel McAdams' breakout lead role (it was released just a few months after Mean Girls); it solidified Ryan Gosling as a “hey girl” heartthrob; and it swept all eight categories it was nominated for at the 2005 Teen Choice Awards, winning in categories like Choice Movie Love Scene and Choice Movie Liplock.

The book and movie follow a young couple named Noah (Gosling) and Allie (Adams) in 1940s North Carolina (the movie was filmed in South Carolina). Despite some obstacles, the couple fall in love, marry, and spend the next 60 years together. In present day, it’s revealed that Allie, now an old woman (played by Gena Rowlands), has Alzheimer’s, and her doting husband (James Garner, as an elderly Noah) helps her remember their storied past. In 2003, Sparks published a loose sequel called The Wedding, featuring the characters Allie and Noah. Here are 10 facts about the beloved romance.

1. IT WAS BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

Nicholas Sparks’s book was based on his then-wife Cathy's grandparents, who spent more than 60 years together. Cathy was close to her grandparents, and visited them frequently. The grandparents were too ill to attend their wedding, in 1989, so the newly-married couple brought the wedding to them. They dressed up in their wedding clothes and surprised them at their house. Cathy's grandparents told the Sparks how they met and fell in love, decades ago.

“But though their story was wonderful, what I most remember from that day is the way they were treating each other,” Sparks wrote on his website. “The way his eyes shined when he looked at her, the way he held her hand, the way he got her tea and took care of her. I remember watching them together and thinking to myself that after 60 years of marriage, these two people were treating each other exactly the same as my wife and I were treating each other after 12 hours. What a wonderful gift they’d given us, I thought, to show us on our first day of marriage that true love can last forever.”

Unfortunately for Nicholas and Cathy, their love didn’t last forever—they divorced in 2015

2. NICHOLAS SPARKS THINKS THE BOOK WAS SUCCESSFUL BECAUSE IT WAS RELATABLE.

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

“It seems that nearly everyone I spoke with about the novel knew a ‘Noah and Allie’ in their own life,” Sparks wrote on his website. He also said the book was short enough (224 pages) for people to read it quickly. “I think that readers also appreciate that the novel didn’t include foul language and its love scene was tasteful and mild compared to what’s found in many other novels,” he said. “These factors made people feel comfortable about recommending it to others.”

3. THE SCREENWRITER HAD TO WORK HARD TO MAKE THE CHARACTERS SEEM REAL.

The Notebook screenwriter Jeremy Leven had the daunting task of adapting Sparks's book into a script. “The problem with the book is that it’s melodramatic and sweet, and you have to find a way to appeal to an audience that is apprehensive about yet another sweet movie,” Leven told The Harvard Crimson. “So you have to give it an edge, make it real, and make the choices the characters face real.” That “edge” probably includes the love scene in the rain.

4. RACHEL MCADAMS AND RYAN GOSLING DIDN’T GET ALONG—AT FIRST.

Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

Even though they played lovers in the movie and then began dating in real life, the couple clashed during production. Director Nick Cassavetes told MTV a story about an incident when Gosling and McAdams weren’t getting along on the set one day: “Ryan came to me, and there’s 150 people standing in this big scene, and he says, ‘Nick come here,’” Cassavetes shared. “And he’s doing a scene with Rachel and he says, ‘Would you take her out of here and bring in another actress to read off camera with me?’ I said, ‘What?’ We went into a room with a producer; they started screaming and yelling at each other ... The rest of the film wasn’t smooth sailing, but it was smoother sailing.”

5. MCADAMS AND GOSLING’S ON-SCREEN CHEMISTRY PROBABLY WASN’T REAL.

“[Our later relationship] certainly wasn’t something that either of us had expected would come out of that filmmaking experience,” McAdams said, “which goes to show you that you can engineer chemistry on-screen just by telling the audience that these two people love each other.” She said it was attributed to the acting. “As an actor you don’t have to feel it. You don’t have to feel anything. Just imagine it.”

6. JESSICA BIEL WAS BUMMED SHE DIDN’T GET TO PLAY ALLIE.

Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for NBC

Unlike Gosling, McAdams had to audition for the role of Allie, and so did Jessica Biel. “I was in the middle of shooting Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I auditioned with Ryan Gosling in my trailer—covered in blood,” Biel told Elle. “That’s one that I wanted so badly. But there’s a million that get away. We’re gluttons for punishment. It’s just rejection.”

7. MCADAMS FELT A LOT OF PRESSURE TO DELIVER A GOOD PERFORMANCE.

The actress told Film Monthly she knew she had to be good in the movie, because she had to carry it. “At first I put way too much pressure on myself and realized that it wasn’t getting me anywhere,” she said. “I was just a ball of stress, and eventually the character kicked in where she’s sort of free-spirited, doesn’t care what people think, and chases down those things she wants.” She eventually found the right balance.

8. JAMES MARSDEN THOUGHT THE MOVIE WAS GOING TO BE “SCHMALTZY.”

Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

James Marsden played Allie’s fiancé—and Noah’s rival—Lon Hammond Jr. The actor told Out Magazine how he tries not to make a bad movie, but they sometimes turn out that way. “Then there are some movies that I’ve been in that I was sure people would laugh at, that have become huge,” he said. “I thought The Notebook was going to be a schmaltzy Movie of the Week–type thing, and here we are!”

9. NICK CASSAVETES WAS THE FOURTH CHOICE TO DIRECT THE MOVIE.

New Line Cinema acquired the rights to Sparks's novel in 1995, before the book was even published. In 1998, Variety reported that Steven Spielberg wanted to direct the film. Jim Sheridan was also interested, but he decided to direct In America instead. In 2001, The Mask of Zorro and GoldenEye director Martin Campbell almost signed on, but in 2002 New Line brought Cassavetes aboard.

10. JAMES GARNER RUINED HIS FIRST TAKE SHOOTING WITH GENA ROWLANDS.

Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

Nick Cassavetes—son of legendary director John Cassavetes—cast his mother, the great Gena Rowlands, as the elderly Allie. Garner recalled the first day he and Gena filmed together. “She's going to come out and I’m sitting on the porch in a chair or something. And I hear Nick say, ‘Okay, mom. Action.’ Well, I ruined that take because I just broke up. That was so funny. That tickled me to death. But he showed his mother great respect. He was gentle with her and worked with her. What I loved about it is that she listened to him. Here’s a professional actress who’s one of the best ever, and she’s listening to her son tell her about things. I really admired that in both of them.”

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13 Spooky Facts About The Monster Squad
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Lionsgate Home Entertainment

One part The Goonies, one part Ghostbusters, and one part Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, after being overlooked in its initial release, The Monster Squad has been reanimated as a cult classic. On the 30th anniversary of its release, let's take a look back at some of its behind-the-scenes trivia.

1. DIRECTOR FRED DEKKER WAS REJECTED BY TWO FILM SCHOOLS.

As a teenager, Fred Dekker applied to become a film student at both USC and UCLA. However, those universities both had other ideas. “Both film schools rejected me,” said Dekker on The Monster Squad’s 20th anniversary DVD, “but both accepted me in their curriculum, so I just couldn’t necessarily be in the film department.” The aspiring director enrolled at USC, where he reluctantly pursued a bachelor’s degree in English. “The fact that I was an English major was just kind of a nuisance. What I really wanted to do was just hang with my friends and make movies.”

2. THE FLICK GOT A BRIEF SHOUT-OUT IN NIGHT OF THE CREEPS.

When he received the greenlight for The Monster Squad (which he’d co-written with Shane Black), Dekker was busy shooting 1986’s Night of the Creeps. The cult classic involves alien parasites that enter their victims’ mouths and turn them into walking, braindead corpses. Pause the above trailer at the 29-second mark and, in a shameless plug, you’ll notice the words “Go Monster Squad!” conspicuously graffitied onto the bathroom wall.

3. THE CREATURE DESIGNERS WORKED HARD TO AVOID LEGAL PROBLEMS WITH UNIVERSAL.

First and foremost, The Monster Squad is an affectionate tribute to Universal’s iconic horror movies of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Nevertheless, the studio passed on producing the film, which was ultimately picked up by TriStar. This forced The Monster Squad’s visual effects team to get creative.

“Although we were doing a movie that was a takeoff on the Universal classics,” said legendary monster creator Stan Winston, “… none of our designs infringed on the original designs of the Universal characters. There were subtle changes; we had to be sure that nothing about them could be considered a copyright infringement of a design.” Which is why Dracula has no Lugosi-esque widow’s peak, Frankenstein monster’s neck bolts have migrated to his temples, and Wolfman has pointy ears and a face that Dekker describes as “more lupine” than what Universal had come up with.

4. CASTING THE MUMMY INVOLVED A BIZARRE WANT AD.

Mummies aren’t usually noted for their girth. “I’ve always been super skinny,” says actor Michael Reid MacKay. One fateful day, a friend pointed out an unusual casting advertisement in Variety. “It said, ‘Looking for an extremely thin actor on the verge of anorexia,” MacKay recalled. He headed straight for the studio and, after showing off some creepy gestures, won the part of the Mummy.

5. ASHLEY BANK TURNED DOWN A ROLE IN FATAL ATTRACTION TO PLAY FIVE-YEAR-OLD PHOEBE.

Lionsgate Home Entertainment

“Monster made me an offer first,” remembers Ashley Bank. “Had Fatal Attraction been shot in Los Angeles, I probably would have done both, but it was in New York, so I had to do The Monster Squad. My parents wanted me to have more fun. It was a bigger part, and it would be a kids’ movie that I could actually see … I never regretted it at all.”

6. AN EARLY DRAFT OF THE SCRIPT INVOLVED VAN HELSING FIGHTING DRACULA WITH MACHINE GUNS.

The Monster Squad co-writer Shane Black initially wanted a far more overblown—and expensive—opening scene. In the 2007 DVD documentary Monster Squad Forever, Dekker recalled that Black envisioned Van Helsing laying siege to Dracula’s castle “on a zeppelin with machine guns.” Racing out to meet him would be “40 vampire brides riding horses.” Dekker quickly burst Black’s bubble. “‘I said, ‘We can’t make this. This is the first five minutes of the movie and [we’d have] already spent … $100 million!’”

7. THE MONSTER SQUAD’S TREEHOUSE IS LITTERED WITH HORROR EASTER EGGS.

You’ve got to hand it to these kids: they know how to decorate. Wallpapering their arboreal hangout spot are posters and stills from movies that span the history of horror, including fan favorites like This Island Earth (1955), Vampire Circus (1972), and The Being (1983).

8. DUNCAN REGEHR BEAT OUT LIAM NEESON FOR THE ROLE OF DRACULA.

In 1986, Liam Neeson was still a relative unknown and, like many struggling actors, decided to try out for a horror movie. Apparently, he nailed his audition with a superb take on the Count. “We thought for sure we [were] going to hire this guy,” producer Jonathan Zimbert revealed in Monster Squad Forever. “Then Duncan came in and was not only as brilliant, but he was terrifying also.” Twenty years later, Wizard magazine named Regehr the “greatest Dracula of all time” for his chilling performance in The Monster Squad.

9. GILLMAN KO’D A STUNT MAN DURING THE FILM'S CLIMAX.

Creature builder Tom Woodruff, Jr. had always wanted to climb into a monster suit and wreak havoc in a major motion picture. With The Monster Squad, he smelled a golden opportunity. Late in the pre-production phase, nobody had yet been cast as Gillman (a.k.a. the Creature from the Black Lagoon). So Woodruff, who was working on Wolfman’s animatronics, asked to be considered for the job.

His wish was granted, but the gig wasn’t all fun and games. The Monster Squad’s final battle sees a few sherriff’s deputies clubbing the fishy humanoid. Though these prop weapons were soft on the outside, they had hard interiors. As sculptor Matt Rose notes 25 minutes into the clip below, Woodruff winced with every strike.

“They were wailing on him,” Rose recalled. “They’d stop and Tom would just say through the Gill mask ‘Hey guys, do you mind just taking it easy a little bit?” Alas, these pleas fell on deaf ears. After a few tiring takes, Rose remembers that, “One of the bigger guys was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Since Woodruff’s vision was limited by the suit, he didn’t see the stunt man and accidentally slugged him right in the face.

“[He] fell like a sack of potatoes, straight on his a**,” said Rose. For a few unsettling moments, the stunt man just laid there with a glazed look in his eyes. Evidently, there was a pair of badly-placed rivets on the inside of his helmet. The blow drove these into his forehead and, once the hat was removed, two streams of blood spurted forth. Thankfully, he wasn’t seriously hurt.

10. DRACULA AND FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER NEVER BROKE CHARACTER IN FRONT OF THE KIDS.

Tom Noonan (Frankenstein’s Monster) made it a point to never greet the young stars with anything more than a grunt, and he never let them see him without his monstrous makeup. “The first time that I met Tom, I was 25,” Ashley Bank quipped. “I never met Tom [on the set]. I only met Frankenstein.”

Regehr, too, always stayed in costume around the children. Yet, he did make one minor adjustment whenever Bank walked by: Near the end of the picture, the script calls for Dracula to lift up Phoebe by the chin; as he clutches her, his teeth sharpen, his eyes redden, and he lets loose a mighty hiss. To really get a good scare out of her, Regehr made sure that Bank never saw him wearing his fangs or crimson contact lenses. When the time came to shoot the moment in question, he put them on when she wasn’t looking.

Dekker—who knew all about Regher’s plan—told Bank “You’re gonna have to scream in this scene.” “When?” she asked. “Oh, you’ll know,” he replied. And sure enough, she did. Bank’s terrified cry was, in her own words, “100 percent real.”

11. WHILE DELIVERING THE FINAL LINE, ANDRE GOWER WAS TOLD TO IMITATE CLINT EASTWOOD.

Moments before the credits roll, a victorious Sean (Andre Gower) looks squarely at the camera lens and says “We’re The Monster Squad.” Wanting the line to sound cool without getting campy, Dekker instructed Gower to “do it like Clint.”

12. THE MOVIE SPENT JUST TWO WEEKS IN THEATERS.

Released on August 14, 1987, The Monster Squad was both a commercial and critical flop. Vincent Camby of The New York Times called it “a silly attempt to cross breed an Our Gang comedy with a classic horror film, which usually means that both genres have reached the end of the line.” After a two-week theatrical run, the movie was pulled. However, it slowly built a following via video rentals and cable broadcasts.

Today, The Monster Squad commands a dedicated fan base. When the cast and crew reunited for a special two-night showing at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in 2006, both screenings sold out. As Dekker once put it, “It took 20 years for the movie to find its audience.”

13. TRAGICALLY, BRENT CHALEM (“HORACE”) DIED OF PNEUMONIA AT AGE 22.

He’ll always be remembered for his talent, his warmth, and the immortal line “Wolfman’s got nards!”

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