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.

Kit Harington Reveals Which Harry Potter Character He'd Want to Play in a Prequel

Kit Harington is clearly drawn to dark, brooding characters.

Winter is Coming reports that Harington, who is best known for his role as Jon Snow in the hard-hitting HBO series Game of Thrones, spoke on a panel at ACE Comic Con this past weekend. Though he was there to discuss his upcoming role as Dane Whitman, a.k.a. Black Knight, in the upcoming Marvel Studios film The Eternals, his involvement in—and love for—other franchises came up during the conversation.

The moderator of the panel surprised the audience by bringing up Harington’s love for the Harry Potter series, and, of course, asked him which Hogwarts house he aligns with. The 32-year-old actor responded, “I am a Gryffindor. I’ve thought very deeply about it.” Though Harington himself identifies with the lion-hearted, he does believe that Jon Snow would be a Hufflepuff because of his undying loyalty.

Harington was then asked which character he would want to play in a hypothetical Harry Potter prequel movie about the Marauders—a group of Gryffindors that included James Potter (Harry’s dad), Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew, who attended Hogwarts a generation before Harry and his friends. And who were often at odds with Slytherin Severus Snape.

Harington's response was immediate, and enthusiastic:

Severus Snape is the most tragic, wonderful, brilliant [character] ... He’s a character you hate, and then end up loving. He’s just phenomenal. I don’t think I’m right for him, so I’ll play Sirius. But, whoever gets to play Snape, that’s a great character.”

[h/t Winter Is Coming]

Disney's 10 Scariest Movies

Lynn-Holly Johnson, Bette Davis, and Kyle Richards in The Watcher in the Woods (1980).
Lynn-Holly Johnson, Bette Davis, and Kyle Richards in The Watcher in the Woods (1980).
Walt Disney Pictures

Disney: Known for catchy songs, cute animal sidekicks, brave Princesses … and occasionally scarring children for life. A lot of Disney’s more famously upsetting moments have to do with deathBambi’s mother and Mufasa’s father, for instance—but sometimes the studio goes plain horror movie with it. As Halloween approaches, here are 10 of Disney’s scariest movies.

1. Return to Oz (1985)

Return Oz establishes its “wait, what the hell am I watching?” cred early on, when Dorothy Gale—back in Kansas following her adventures in Oz—is shipped off to the doctor for a round of electroshock therapy to cure her insomnia and “delusions.” Dorothy is saved from her One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fate and whisked off to Oz again, where she finds that the Nome King and Princess Mombi—Nicol Williamson and Jean Marsh, who also played the doctor and head nurse—have destroyed the Emerald City and turned most of its inhabitants to stone. Playing Dorothy in her first feature film role is Fairuza Balk, who would go on to star in perpetual Halloween favorite The Craft. Return to Oz is the only film directed by legendary editor Walter Murch, most famous for his work on Apocalypse Now.

2. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

The collected works of Ray Bradbury have been adapted into dozens of films, only a handful of which were written by the late author himself. The final feature film to be written by Bradbury is 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, which in its first act is a typical, sweet—if somewhat dark—drama about two young boys growing up in a small town in the Midwest. Then a carnival rolls into town, and things get real messed up. Running the carnival is Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), who grants the townspeople’s wishes in ways that … well, let’s just say they’re not very nice.

3. Mr. Boogedy (1986)

“Made-for-TV ‘80s movie about a gag gift salesman and his family” doesn’t scream terror, but Mr. Boogedy defies the odds to have some legitimately creepy moments. Granted, it’s not a subtle film: a family that moves into a dilapidated mansion in a town called called Lucifer Falls shouldn’t really expect to have an easy go of things. The mansion, believe it or not, is haunted by not one but three spirits: a widow, her child, and the eponymous Mr. Boogedy, who back in Colonial times sold his soul to Satan for a cloak that gives him magical powers. It’s Mr. Boogedy’s character design that gives the movie its biggest ick factor; the film’s makeup designer, Rick Stratton, would go on to win two Emmys. Mr. Boogedy’s cloak is eventually sucked into a possessed vacuum cleaner.

4. The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Director John Hough’s The Watcher in the Woods isn’t only scary because it gives Bette Davis and current Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star (and then-child actress) Kyle Richards a decent chunk of shared screen time. Based on a 1976 novel, the film—like Mr. Boogedy—follows a family that moves into a mysterious house haunted by some mysterious presence. In The Watcher in the Woods, that presence is thought to be Karen, the long-disappeared daughter of the house’s owner, played by a collecting-those-paychecks Davis. Spoiler alert: There are actually two presences. One is Karen. The other is an alien. The original ending of The Watcher in the Woods actually showed the alien, but the effects were so bad that the premiere audience broke out laughing, causing Hough to reshoot the climactic final scene with the aliens as a vague blur of light.

5. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Released in 1949, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is made up of two half-hour, kid-friendly literary adaptations, the first from The Wind in the Willows and the second from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Neither segment is particularly scary … up until the last few minutes of “Sleepy Hollow,” when the animators went all-out to make schoolteacher Ichabod Crane’s flight from the Headless Horseman a contender for Disney’s scariest scene. Clyde Geronimi, who with Jack Kinney directed the “Sleepy Hollow” sequence, would go on to co-direct Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians.

6. Pinocchio (1940)

Jiminy Cricket hopping around and The Blue Fairy singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” might be the most enduring images from Disney’s second-ever animated feature, but let’s not forget that Pinocchio could be scary when it needed to be. The film’s most potent bit of nightmare fuel comes in the scene where a bunch of children are magically transformed into terrified, crying donkeys so they could be sold away as slave labor. Looks like Disney had a taste for causing childhood trauma early on.

7. “The Skeleton Dance” (1929)

Spooky and cute: Why not both? The 1929 short “The Skeleton Dance” threads the needle deftly, with its depiction of a quartet of skeletons dancing around a graveyard maintaining the goofy tone that marks most of the early Disney shorts while still providing an ample dose of the shivers. “The Skeleton Dance” was drawn by Ub Iwerks, who several years earlier had designed Mickey Mouse.

8. Fantasia (1940)

Most of the segments in Disney’s Fantasia are markedly un-creepy—unless you consider ballet-dancing hippos disturbing, which makes a fair amount of sense—but with “Night on Bald Mountain,” Disney went full dark and stormy night. Set to the title song by composer Modest Mussorgsky, the film depicts the ancient Slavic deity Chernabog (whose name means “black god) calling all sorts of assorted demonic creatures to him before being driven away by the rising of the sun. Bela Lugosi served as a live-action reference for Chernabog, spending a day at Disney Studios striking a series of ominous poses. Nothing that Lugosi provided was ultimately used, as animator Bill Tylta was unimpressed by it.

9. The Black Cauldron (1985)

The Black Cauldron was an infamous failure for Disney, earning a mere $20 million domestically against a budget that made it, at the time, "the most expensive animated feature ever made.” With the film, Disney ditched the songs and lighthearted feel that marked its animated features up to that point in favor of a darker fantasy epic; notably, The Black Cauldron was the first Disney animated feature to earn a PG rating. Though it’s notoriously regarded as a flop, there’s one area in which The Black Cauldron is quite successful: making its villain, the Horned King, absolutely terrifying. Even the way he dies is nightmare-inducing: The magical black cauldron that the Horned King hoped would give him power to take over the world with an undead army instead melts his flesh off. It’s a bit more gruesome than the typically death-by-falling most Disney villains get.

10. Hocus Pocus (1993)

Initially released in 1993 to middling box office returns (Disney made the odd choice to release this Halloween-themed movie in July), director Kenny Ortega’s Hocus Pocus has gone on to achieve cult status. Omri Katz, since retired from acting, stars as Max Dennison, who with neighbor Allison and younger sister Dani must defeat the Sanderson sisters, a trio of witches who were hanged during the Salem witch trials. One of the witches was played by Sarah Jessica Parker, whose ancestor Esther Elwell was accused of being a witch in 17th-century Salem; she escaped execution when prosecution from witchcraft was done away with.

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