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St. Mihiel Offensive

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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 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.

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The Princess Ride: Here's What a Princess Bride Theme Park Attraction Might Look Like
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Do you fight the urge to say “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya” when introducing yourself? Have you spent the past 30 years mispronouncing the word “marriage”? If so, you may be a diehard fan of The Princess Bride. The cult film (and the book on which it’s based) has inspired board games, merchandise, and countless pop culture references. Now, two theme park designers from Universal have conceived the inconceivable. As Nerdist reports, Jon Plsek and Olivia West have designed the plans for a hypothetical attraction called “The Princess Ride.

Their idea follows the classic river boat ride structure and adds highlights from the movie around each corner. After watching Buttercup and Wesley’s love story unfold, riders are taken past the Cliffs of Insanity, through the Fire Swamp, and into the Pit of Despair. The climax unfolds at Prince Humperdinck’s castle and leads up to the two protagonists riding off into the sunset. The last thing the passengers see is Miracle Max and Valerie waving goodbye saying, “Hope ya had fun stormin’ the castle!”

The ride’s designers make a living turning stories into thrilling attractions. Plsek works as a concept artist for Universal Creative, the group behind Universal’s theme parks, and West works there as a concept writer. While The Princess Ride was just a fun side project for the pair, it isn’t hard to imagine their ride bringing Princess Bride fans to the parks in real life.

For more of Jon Plesk’s concept rides inspired by classics like Dr. Strangelove (1964) and National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), check out his website.

[h/t Nerdist]

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10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
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Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for more than 40 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guardaldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother, Linus, however, is still a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGG.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of whatever holiday they’re celebrating. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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