St. Mihiel Offensive

Image credit: bm-lyon 

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 176th installment in the series.

March 30, 1915: St. Mihiel Offensive

The St. Mihiel salient was a part of the Western Front where German-held territory bulged out to reach the town of the same name, a strategic bridgehead across the River Meuse between the great fortresses of Verdun and Toul. Conquered in September 1914, possession of the crossing at St. Mihiel allowed the Germans to threaten Verdun with encirclement and menace the French armies further west in Champagne and Artois from the rear. The salient would remain a thorn in the side of the Allied armies for almost the whole duration of the war, until the First U.S. Army finally liberated it in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in September 1918.

However this wasn’t for a lack of trying, as the French made a series of attempts to push the Germans out of the exposed and seemingly vulnerable salient, all of them unsuccessful. The first campaign began on March 30, 1915, when chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre ordered the French First and Third Armies, along with a newly formed army detachment under General Augustin Gérard, to mount a multi-pronged pincer attack against the salient from the north and south. The result was a bloodbath ending in stalemate, and the failure of the third major Allied offensive on the Western Front, after Champagne and Neuve Chapelle (below, a French trench outside St. Mihiel). 

The first attack, against the eastern end of the salient’s southern flank, would be led by General Auguste Dubail commanding Army Group East, consisting of the First Army and the Army of the Vosges (at the last minute Joffre cancelled a supporting attack by the latter, a smaller force guarding the less active southern end of the front, due to lack of manpower and ammunition). On March 30, 1915 the First Army’s 73rd Division attacked north along the Moselle River, followed over the next week by three more army corps attacking in sequence to the west, spreading the battle along the whole southern flank of the salient (below, a map of the salient). 

These attacks were intended to force the German commander, General Hermann von Strantz, to redeploy forces in his Army Detachment Strantz south to defend against the First Army’s onslaught—leaving the northern flank weakened for another attack by the French Third Army and Army Detachment Gérard, which began on April 5. This northern attack included an assault on a ridge east of the town of Les Éparges, a strategic position which gave the Germans a vantage point for artillery spotting, leading to some of the fiercest fighting of the war (top, the “Valley of Death” at Les Éparges).

The attack on Les Éparges was hindered by the hilly terrain and the failure of French artillery to destroy the defensive obstacles in front of the German trenches, especially barbed wire entanglements, which limited French gains to 500 meters, won at huge cost (above, French soldiers carried a wounded comrade from Éparges). Meanwhile the southern offensive was hardly going any better, as German artillery, machine guns, and massed rifle fire inflicted huge casualties. German artillery bombardments of the French frontlines proved particularly devastating. On April 5, according to the German war record, “Hundreds of corpses were being thrown forward from the French entrenchment.” The following day, 

German positions on the southern wing… were kept under the fire of the heavy French artillery the whole night, to which our guns successfully replied. These artillery duels lasted… the whole of the following day... Four times consecutively they assaulted our positions only to be thrown back each time with heavy losses. Heaps of dead lay before our trenches.

Despite the spiraling body count Dubail returned to the attack on April 12, with three simultaneous operations from the north and south, including another attack on the German position at Les Éparges. This time he ordered even heavier artillery bombardments to precede the infantry advance, in order to cut the barbed wire and other defensive obstacles. Once again however the Germans hit back with massive artillery fire against the French artillery and frontlines, and according to the German war record, “it was observed later that the French heaped up their dead like sand-bags on the parapets of their entrenchments, covering them with clay…” On April 14 Joffre removed two infantry corps from the attacking forces, signaling that the battle was basically over (below, the Bois-le-Prêtre, or “Priest’s Wood,” after the fighting near the town of Pont-a-Mousson on the eastern end of the salient’s southern flank). 

However the Germans had other plans: on April 23, 1915 Strantz launched a surprise attack against the French near Les Éparges, and the following day succeeded in capturing several kilometers of French frontline and secondary trenches—a victory due in large part to a massive artillery bombardment. In his memoir Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger recalled his first experience of combat at Les Éparges, which had a somewhat surreal flavor: 

Towards noon, the artillery fire had increased to a kind of savage pounding dance. The flames lit around us incessantly. Black, white, and yellow clouds mingled. The shells with black smoke, which the old-timers called “Americans” or “coal boxes,” ripped with incredible violence. And all the time the curious, canary-like twittering of dozens of fuses… they drifted over the long surf of explosions like ticking copper toy clocks or mechanical insects. The odd thing was that the little birds in the forest seemed quite untroubled by the myriad noise… In the short intervals of firing, we could hear them singing happily or ardently to one another…

Afterwards, Junger encountered a horrifying scene in the conquered French trenches, where he encountered the casualties of previous battles: 

A sweetish smell and a bundle hanging in the wire caught my attention. In the rising mist I leaped out of the trench and found a shrunken French corpse. Flesh like mouldering fish gleamed greenishly through splits in the shredded uniform. Turning round, I took a step back in horror: next to me a figure was crouched against a tree… Empty eye-sockets and a few strands of hair on the bluish-black skull indicated that the man was not among the living. There was another sitting down, slumped forward towards his feet, as though he had just collapsed. All around were dozens more, rotted, dried, stiffened to mummies, frozen in an eerie dance of death. The French must have spent months in the proximity of their fallen comrades, without burying them. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

Orson Welles's Former Hollywood Hills Estate Is Taking Vacation Reservations

Fred Mott, Getty Images
Fred Mott, Getty Images

Orson Welles's former Hollywood Hills estate is a perfect place to get away from society, grow a bushy beard, and brood over a bottle of whiskey.

Interested? The late Hollywood icon's 3000-square-foot home is available to rent for about $755 a night through HomeAway. The house, which sits on its own private 15,000-square-foot knoll, was home to Welles at the very beginning of his career and is where he wrote the screenplay for 1941's Citizen Kane. Bring along your typewriter and try to channel some of his greatness.

Quite a few other celebrities have inhabited the house as well, including Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and David Bowie. Features of the grand four-bedroom mansion—built in 1928—include a lagoon pool, Jacuzzi, deck, and both canyon and city views.

There's never been a better time to rent Welles's abode: his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, is set to premiere at this month's Venice Film Festival before arriving on Netflix. The unfinished flick, which was shot intermittently between 1970 and 1976, has been completed and restored for its much-anticipated release. (Of course the mansion has plenty of TVs for your viewing pleasure.)

The property has a three- to five-night stay minimum, depending on the season. For more pictures, see below or head to HomeAway. And since you're already in vacation-planning mode, another creative celebrity abode to consider is F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's Montgomery, Alabama home, which is available to rent via Airbnb.

Orson Welles' house
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles mansion
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

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