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.

10 Timeless Facts About The Land Before Time

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Five years before Jurassic Park roared into theaters, a gentler, more meditative dinosaur film endeared itself to audiences of all ages. Initially met with mixed reviews, The Land Before Time is now regarded as an animated classic. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the Steven Spielberg-produced film, which arrived in theaters 30 years ago.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A DIALOGUE-FREE MOVIE.

Gabriel Damon and Candace Hutson in The Land Before Time (1988)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In the mid-1980s, executive producer Steven Spielberg began toying with the idea of a Bambi-esque dinosaur film. “Basically,” he later said, “I wanted to do a soft picture … about five little dinosaurs and how they grow up and work together as a group.” Inspiration came from the “Rite of Spring” sequence from Disney’s Fantasia (1940)—a scene in which prehistoric beasts wordlessly go about their business. At first, Spielberg wanted his own dinosaur characters to follow suit and remain mum. Ultimately, however, it was feared that a non-verbal approach might bore or confuse the film’s intended audience. As such, the animals were given lines.

2. DIRECTOR DON BLUTH WAS AN EX-DISNEY EMPLOYEE.

Don Bluth grew up idolizing Disney’s work, and began working for the studio in 1955. Over the next two decades, he did various odd jobs until he was brought on as a full-time animator in 1971. Once on the inside, Bluth got to peek behind the magician’s curtain—and disliked what he found there. “I think [Walt Disney] would’ve seen that the pictures were losing their luster,” Bluth said. Frustrated by the studio’s cost-cutting measures, he resigned in 1979. Joining him were fellow animators Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. Together the trio launched their own company, Sullivan Bluth Studios, and began working on The Land Before Time in 1986.

3. OVER 600 BACKGROUND PAINTINGS WERE MADE FOR THE FILM.

Most of these depicted beautiful but barren wastelands, which presented a real challenge for the creative team. As one studio press release put it, “The artists had to create a believable environment in which there was almost no foliage.” Whenever possible, Bluth’s illustrators emphasized vibrant colors. This kept their backdrops from looking too drab or monotonous—despite the desolate setting.

4. LITTLEFOOT’S ORIGINAL NAME WAS “THUNDERFOOT.”

This was changed when the filmmakers learned that there was a triceratops in a popular children’s book called Thunderfoot. Speaking of three-horned dinosaurs: Cera evolved from a pugnacious male character called Bambo.

5. THE FILMMAKERS HAD TO CUT ABOUT 10 MINUTES OF FOOTAGE.

“We compromised a lot with The Land Before Time,” Goldman admitted. Nowhere was this fact more apparent than on the cutting room floor. Spielberg and his fellow executive producer George Lucas deemed 19 individual scenes “too scary.” “We’ll have kids crying in the lobby, and angry parents,” Spielberg warned. “You don’t want that.”

6. “ROOTER” WAS INTRODUCED AT THE URGING OF CHILD PSYCHOLOGISTS.

In Bambi, the title character’s mom dies off-screen. The same cannot be said for Littlefoot’s mother, whose slow demise goes on for several agonizing minutes. Naturally, there was some concern about how children would react to this. “A lot of research went into the mother dying sequence,” Pomeroy said. “Psychologists were approached and shown the film. They gave their professional opinions of how the sequence could be depicted.” Thus, Rooter was born.

One scene after Littlefoot’s mom passes, the wise reptile consoles him, saying “You’ll always miss her, but she’ll always be with you as long as you remember the things she taught you.” Sharp-eared fans might recognize Rooter’s voice as that of Pat Hingle, who also narrates the movie.

7. JAMES HORNER DID THE SOUNDTRACK.

The late, Oscar-winning composer behind Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009) put together a soaring score. Along with lyricist Will Jennings, he also penned the original song “If We Hold On Together,” which Diana Ross sings as the end credits roll.

8. THE ACTRESS BEHIND DUCKY PASSED AWAY BEFORE THE MOVIE’S RELEASE.

Judith Barsi’s career was off to a great start. By age 10, this daughter of Hungarian immigrants had already appeared in 70 commercials and voiced the leading lady in Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). For The Land Before Time, Barsi voiced the ever-optimistic Ducky, which was reportedly her favorite role. Then tragedy struck: In July of 1988, Barsi’s father József murdered both her and her mother before taking his own life.

9. IT HAD A RECORD-SETTING OPENING WEEKEND.

From the get-go, The Land Before Time had some stiff competition. Universal released it on November 18, 1988—the same day that Disney’s Oliver & Company hit theaters. Yet, for a solid month, Bluth gave Oliver a box office beating. The Land Before Time enjoyed the highest-grossing opening weekend that any animated film had ever seen, pulling in $7.5 million to Oliver & Company’s $4 million. Since then, of course, The Land Before Time has long been dethroned; today, Incredibles 2 (2018) holds this coveted distinction with a $182.7 million first-weekend showing.

10. THERE ONCE WAS TALK OF A LAND BEFORE TIME STAGE MUSICAL.

“The time has come for dinosaurs on Broadway,” the late theatrical producer Irving Welzer told The New York Times in 1997. Emboldened by the recent cinematic success of Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), Welzer expressed an interest helping Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, and the rest of the gang make their Big Apple debut. Soon, however, the idea faded.

Billie Lourd Shares What (Very Little) She Can About Star Wars: Episode IX

Frazer Harrison, Getty Images
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

​Nearly nothing is known about the final film in the latest Star Wars series, except that J.J. Abrams, who helmed The Force Awakens, will be returning as director, and many of the cast members from both Abrams's earlier effort and The Last Jedi will be reprising their roles. Even the late Carrie Fisher, who sadly passed away on December 27, 2016, will be included in Episode IX, through unused footage from the previous two films.

Though all the stars of the upcoming film are sworn to secrecy about it, Fisher's daughter, Billie Lourd, is spilling what she can. Lourd, who played the minor role of Lieutenant Connix in the last two films, teased what it was like being back on set.

"I gotta watch myself because the Star Wars PD is going to come get me, but it is incredible. I’ve read the script and I’ve been on set," Lourd told ​Entertainment Tonight. "I was on set for, like, three weeks back in September, and it is going to be magical. I can’t say much more, but I’m so excited about it and so grateful to be a part of it. Star Wars is my heart. I love it."

A lot of things are riding on Episode IX, especially considering how divided fans were over The Last Jedi. Though with Abrams back in the director's chair, it seems likely that the new film will be a return to form. The as-yet-untitled film hits theaters on December 20, 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER