A Defeat Foretold

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 198th installment in the series. 

August 21, 1915: A Defeat Foretold 

“He looked at me sideways with a very odd expression on his face,” Winston Churchill later wrote of his encounter with Secretary of War Lord Kitchener on August 21, 1915, shortly before a momentous cabinet meeting. Churchill continued:

I saw that he had some disclosure of importance to make, and waited. After appreciable hesitation he told me that he had agreed with the French to a great offensive in France. I said at once that there was no chance of success. He said that the scale would restore everything, including of course the Dardanelles. He had an air of suppressed excitement like a man who has taken a great decision of terrible uncertainty, and is about to put it into execution. 

Later Churchill repeated his objections, warning the cabinet that the attack “could only lead to useless slaughter on a gigantic scale. I pointed out that we had neither the ammunition nor the superiority in men necessary to warrant such an assault on the enemy’s fortified line…” His forebodings proved all too accurate. Going into the Battle of Loos on September 25, 1915, everyone seemed to know that – as Kitchener himself admitted to the cabinet –  “the odds were against a great success.” In short, it was a defeat foretold. 

The Shell Crisis 

By mid-1915, a series of defeats and Pyrrhic victories at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Festubert left little doubt that the British Expeditionary Force lacked sufficient heavy artillery and ammunition to batter through German defenses on the Western Front, at least in the near term. The small prewar British Army simply didn’t have the firepower required for modern warfare, and it would take time to catch up. 

The ammunition shortage became public knowledge in the spring of 1915 with the “Shell Crisis,” which forced Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to form a new coalition government, including the Welsh Radical David Lloyd George in the newly created cabinet position of Minister of Munitions. But there was no way the shortfall could possibly be remedied in just a few months, requiring as it did a sweeping overhaul of British manufacturing including construction of new factories, streamlined procurement processes, and the passage of new labor laws and trade union agreements (principally to allow women to work in war factories). 

This situation was known to all, but especially to top officials. On August 21, when the Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden asked when the British Army would have enough ammunition to resume the offensive, the Conservative politician Bonar Law estimated it would take at least five months, while Churchill said they wouldn’t be ready until the middle of the following year. But the attack would proceed in late September regardless.

Pleas for Help 

The British were moved to action, against their better judgment, by pleas for help from their Russian allies – or more precisely, their French allies pleading on behalf of their Russian allies. 

Actually France’s civilian leaders, stung by defeats at Champagne, St. Mihiel, and Artois, weren’t exactly eager to launch a new offensive either; in fact on August 6, 1915, President Raymond Poincare delivered a speech to the Chamber of Deputies calling for a defensive strategy on the Western Front. However chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre, asserting his authority as France’s top general, dismissed this idea and insisted on a new offensive. 

Joffre drew on a number of arguments: liberating the industrial areas of northern France would greatly increase French war-making capability, and he also feared that a long period of inactivity would undermine Allied morale, sapping the famous French élan. He also noted that the current balance of forces on the Western Front was more favorable than ever, pitting 132 Allied divisions (98 French, 28 British, and 6 Belgian) against 102 German divisions – but this window of opportunity probably wouldn’t last. 

Above all, however, he pointed to the need to help the Russians, currently making enormous sacrifices in the Great Retreat, by forcing the Germans to withdraw some of their forces from the Eastern Front. Privately he warned that in the absence of a new effort on the Western Front, the Russians might feel compelled to make a separate peace with the Central Powers – leaving its Western Allies France and Britain to face Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire alone. 

On August 16 to 19, 1915, Kitchener traveled to France to meet with Joffre and other top Allied commanders, and it was apparently during these meetings that Joffre persuaded Kitchener (who like Churchill and Poincare had previously favored a defensive strategy) that France and Britain had to go on the offensive again (top, Kitchener is in the center, Joffre to his right). Citing the prewar Franco-Russian Alliance, Joffre made it clear that France would attack alone if need be, leaving Kitchener little choice but to commit Britain to join the attack, or risk a grave diplomatic rupture with France. 

Douglas Haig, commander of the British First Army chosen to attack at Loos, recorded Kitchener’s statements at a meeting on August 19, 1915: 

The Russians, he said, had been severely handled and it was doubtful how much longer their Army could withstand the German blows. Up to the present, he had favoured a policy of active defence in France until such time as all our forces were ready to strike. The situation which had arisen in Russia caused him to modify these views. He now felt the Allies must act vigorously in order to take some of the pressure off Russia, if possible. 

After Kitchener informed the British cabinet of his plans on August 21, overriding Churchill’s concerns, the following day British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French met with Joffre and Ferdinand Foch, the commander of the French armies in the north, to plan the attack. 

Joffre’s grand strategy called for two simultaneous attacks at opposite ends of the German salient in northern France – smashing through the enemy lines and advancing in a giant pincer movement, thereby threatening the German armies with encirclement and so forcing them to withdraw. 

To the east, in Champagne, the French Second and Fourth Armies would attack the German Third Army (with an assist from the French Third Army) with a total of 27 divisions, in what became known as the Second Battle of Champagne. Meanwhile on the northwestern side of the salient, the British First Army and French Tenth Army would attack the German Sixth Army along a 20-mile front stretching from Arras to La Bassée, centered on the village of Loos. The French were committing 17 French divisions to this attack, also called the Third Battle of Artois, while the British contribution would include six British divisions containing 75,000 infantry, as well as two cavalry corps, for a total of eleven divisions. At the same time the British Second Army would make a secondary attack to tie down German forces near Ypres. 

The plan was doomed from the start. To make up for the shortfall in artillery, the attack at Loos would be preceded by the first British use of poison gas in the war, with 5,500 cylinders releasing 150 tons of chlorine gas against the German lines – but the British, inexperienced in gas warfare, discovered this wasn’t enough to achieve decisive results, and in some cases shifting wind blew the gas back on to British troops.

Even worse, the plan didn’t allow the British generals to choose the ground for the attack, meaning British troops would find themselves advancing across a broad, flat plain in front of German guns – terrain already dismissed by Haig as totally unsuitable for an infantry attack earlier in August. Finally, the attack completely lacked the element of surprise, as the Germans couldn’t fail to notice the huge preparations behind the Allied lines; in fact some British troops recorded Germans putting up mocking notes above their trenches in August and September, asking when the attack would take place. 

The Sinking of the Arabic 

After Secretary of State Robert Lansing’s stern note to Berlin in late July, the argument between the U.S. and Germany over the latter’s campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare remained unresolved, as the Germans stalled, hoping American indignation over the sinking of the Lusitania would slowly subside. But the controversy took center stage against in late August, following the sinking of a British passenger liner, the Arabic, resulting in 44 deaths including three Americans. 

On August 19, 1915, the German submarine U-24, under Kapitanleutenant Rudolf Schneider, sank the Arabic (below) in the Celtic Sea about 50 miles south of the Irish coast, not far from where the Lusitania was sunk by U-20 in May. Schneider later claimed that he believed the Arabic was trying to ram the sub (a common tactic), prompting him to fire a torpedo without warning. However many in the U.S. believed the attack was deliberate. 

The deaths of three more Americans in a submarine attack, coming just a month after the U.S. note warning that further attacks of this kind would be regarded as “deliberately unfriendly,” finally brought the diplomatic crisis to a head. On August 22, a statement from the White House seemed to imply that President Wilson was considering war against Germany if the sinking proved to be deliberate. The response in Berlin was panic.

See the previous installment or all entries.

The 15 Best TV Series Finales of All Time

Ursula Coyote, AMC
Ursula Coyote, AMC

What makes a great TV series finale? It depends on the show, of course. But no matter what series you may be watching, you want a finale that ties up loose ends without being annoyingly completist, gives you heart without seeming overly sentimental, and of course makes you feel just as happy, sad, thrilled, or compelled as you did with each previous episode. It’s a very tricky needle to thread, and some series have undoubtedly done it better than others.

In celebration of what it takes to deliver a great final episode, here are (some of) the greatest series finales of all time.

1. The Sopranos // “Made In America”

“Made In America” is, infamously, the episode of television that made millions of viewers briefly think that their cable had just gone out at some crucial moment, when in reality what happened was creator David Chase simply decided one seemingly random moment was the exact second where Tony Soprano’s journey would end. The series finale of The Sopranos spent the better part of its runtime wrapping up a mob war that crippled the family, and then devoted its final minutes to a family dinner set to Journey. Fans still debate the meaning and merits of the final scene, but the sense of palpable unease Chase built up in those last moments—signifying Tony’s perpetual state of watching his back—were a brilliant way to end a show that began as a meditation on existential dread in the first place.

2. Six Feet Under // “Everyone’s Waiting”

The final minutes of “Everyone’s Waiting” are among the most famous in the history of television, and even if the rest of the episode had been a disappointment, they would still rank among the greatest farewells in the medium. As it is, Six Feet Under's final episode with the Fisher family is a gripping, heartfelt, and bitterly funny gem, all building to that last montage. As Sia’s "Breathe Me" plays, we see the deaths of every member of the main cast, which reminds us that death takes many forms beyond mere tragedy, all culminating in the last breaths of Claire. Just thinking about it is enough to make fans of the show burst into tears.

3. Breaking Bad // “Felina”

Few series finales have ever faced such high expectations and managed to rise to meet them so powerfully as Breaking Bad did with its final episode in 2013. “Felina” has everything you could ever want from a Breaking Bad send-off: Walt’s final conversation with Skyler, that incredible revenge shoot-out featuring the rigged machine gun, Jesse’s defiant cry of freedom as he drives away, Walt’s collapse, and that little smile of victory on his face. Some series finales deliver what you want; others deliver what you need. “Felina” somehow manages to do both.

4. M*A*S*H // “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”

M*A*S*H was on longer than the Korean War was actually fought, and was more than 250 episodes into its run by the time “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” aired and became one of the most-watched television events in the history of the medium. You’d think the staff of the 4077th might have run out of things to say after such a run, but the series finale manages to be absolutely jam-packed, featuring everything from Hawkeye’s dark repressed memories to Klinger’s wedding. It all builds to that final shot of “GOODBYE” written in stones, which still ranks as one of the most iconic moments in TV history.

5. The Americans // “START”

The Americans quietly became one of the best shows on TV before finally winning a bunch of awards for its final season, and with good reason. The final adventures of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings as they contemplated a return to Russia and an end to their double lives in America were among the best the series ever delivered, all building to a final episode that stuck the landing in every possible way, from the thrills of their final escape to the emotional payoff of their daughter Paige’s big decision.

6. The Wire // "-30-"

The Wire was never going to end anything in a clean, cut-and-dried way, but its series finale did mange to wield the various talents at play in the series to end everything on an ambitious and fairly comprehensive note. The finale reckoned with many of the same questions the entire series did—from the nature of justice to the fragility of power systems and how far people will go to keep them in place—as it worked to resolve the homeless serial killer hoax, illegal wiretapping, and the all-important future of Tommy Carcetti. One last montage reminds us that life goes on in Baltimore, whether the show’s characters have reshaped it for the better or not.

7. Seinfeld // “The Finale”

The series finale of Seinfeld is also among the most divisive in the history of television, and it all begins with an amusing swerve. The show leads off by making us think Jerry and George are about to embark on a typical sitcom sendoff, bidding New York City farewell as they head to California to make a television series, but then the real plot kicks in as the show’s quartet of main characters is arrested for literally doing nothing as a man is carjacked.

The brilliance of the show’s protagonists getting in trouble for the very same thing they’d been doing for nine seasons in a “show about nothing” then pivots to a trial that does play by the sitcom rule of allowing old fan-favorite characters to come back as witnesses, then launches into a wrap-up that mocks the characters, the show’s fans, and the show’s own place of seeming importance in the pop culture landscape. Sitcom finales are usually more like curtain calls; "The Finale" was a provocative final joke.

8. Battlestar Galactica // “Daybreak Parts 1-3”

The finale of Battlestar Galactica might be a little too metaphysical in nature for some viewers, but there’s something about the sense of totality running through it that makes it a perfect sendoff for a series that always placed everything on the line with every single story it told. As the surviving humans of the fleet finally defeat their Cylon enemies, Starbuck sends them to a new home, and they agree to abandon all of their old technology and live among the primitive humans already present on what turns out to be our Earth. It’s a beautiful blending of victory, bittersweet goodbyes, seismic changes to everyone’s lives, angels, the future, and—believe it or not—“All Along the Watchtower.”

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation // “All Good Things…”

“Encounter at Farpoint,” the series premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a famously slow, bloated affair that was a sign of things to come for the relatively weak first season. “All Good Things…” brilliantly repurposes that story as a time travel saga in which Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) learns that Q, the alien being who put humanity on trial back in the premiere, is continuing his test of the human race by placing Picard in three different eras of his life. It’s a brilliant conceit that makes an elegant circle out of the series while also allowing Picard to give viewers a grand tour of the series’ entire history, including his own future.

10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer // “Chosen”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer spent weeks setting up its series finale, laying out a last stand that would either end Buffy and her gang of allies forever or wipe Sunnydale off the face of the Earth—or both. The final battle itself has since been dwarfed by more epic series like Game of Thrones, but what makes “Chosen” so magical isn’t its fight scenes, but its heart. With her own army of potential Slayers at her back, Buffy asks Willow to perform a spell that will give them all the powers of a Slayer, leading to one of the most empowering montages in the history of television. Then, even while mourning absent friends, Buffy is able to look toward tomorrow.

11. Newhart // “The Last Newhart”

So many sitcom series finales are all about final goodbyes. Very often characters leave their longtime TV homes for somewhere new, leading to tearful farewells or at least a final moment for everyone to spend one last day together. Newhart absolutely blew that premise up with a twisty, joke-filled finale that includes the entire town being turned into a resort, a five-year time jump, and that brilliant final scene which reveals all of Newhart to have been the dream of Dr. Bob Hartley, Newhart’s character from The Bob Newhart Show. The level of ambition is admirable. That the ambition translated to genuine laughs is wonderful.

12. Twin Peaks: The Return // “Part 17 and Part 18”

Twin Peaks famously ended its early ’90s run with a cliffhanger, which then led to the joyous reception that accompanied The Return, an 18-hour monument to creative freedom which everyone hoped would finally provide some answers. In true David Lynch fashion, though, the answers we got were often difficult to parse. And by the time it was all over, we were left with even more questions. The final two hours of The Return are among the most mind-meltingly intense episodes of television ever devised, all building to a daring and stunning final scene that still has fans talking.

13. The West Wing // “Tomorrow”

The West Wing played the long game with its series finale thanks to a year-long election storyline, which meant that its final episode was always going to be the combination of both an end and a beginning. The intense election story—which included a live debate episode—culminated in the inauguration of a new president, and a farewell to Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet, but the sense of transition inherent in the plot managed to imbue the series with a new sense of potential energy as it made the turn toward home. Watching “Tomorrow,” you can’t help but fantasize about what it will be like for Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn to be together in the White House again, changing the world in all new ways. That emotional weight meant that, after seven years, we actually all felt like we could use a little more of The West Wing.

14. Halt and Catch Fire // “Ten of Swords”

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire
Bob Mahoney, AMC

Halt and Catch Fire never got the audience it deserved when it was airing, which means many people likely don’t know just how brilliant and daring the show got in its final seasons, which included a time jump, a shocking death, and the dawn of the internet age. “Ten of Swords” is all about closing old chapters and starting new ones, and sends the show’s trinity of remaining major characters in promising new directions, even as they all come to terms with the fact that they can never again recapture what they once had.

15. 30 Rock // “Last Lunch”

30 Rock was one of the most acclaimed comedies of its era in part because of its outright refusal to ever be straightforward about anything. Every plot was jokes on top of jokes and references on top of references, creating a show that rewards viewers who can’t get enough of rapid fire wit (and deserves rewatching). “Last Lunch” continued that tradition while also managing to inject some genuine emotion into the affair, as Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) reconcile their friendship in a half hour packed with so many gags and callbacks you could watch it half a dozen times and still not catch everything.

10 Surprising Facts About J.R.R. Tolkien

Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are plenty of things even the most ardent fans don't know about The Lord of the Rings author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. In honor of Tolkien Reading Day (March 25th), here are 10 of them.

1. Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic.

As a linguist and expert on Old English and Old Norse literature, Tolkien was a professor at Oxford University from 1925 until 1959. He was also a tireless instructor, teaching between 70 and 136 lectures a year (his contract only called for 36). But the best part is the way he taught those classes. Although quiet and unassuming in public, Tolkien wasn't the typical stodgy, reserved stereotype of an Oxford don in the classroom. He went to parties dressed as a polar bear, chased a neighbor dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior, and was known to hand shopkeepers his false teeth as payment. As one of his students put it, "He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall."

2. Tolkien felt many of his fans were "lunatics."

Tolkien saw himself as a scholar first and a writer second. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were largely Tolkien's attempt to construct a body of myth, and their success caught him largely unaware. In fact, he spent years rejecting, criticizing, and shredding adaptations of his work that he didn't believe captured its epic scope and noble purpose. He was also utterly skeptical of most LOTR fans, who he believed were incapable of really appreciating the work, and he probably would have been horrified by movie fandom dressing up like Legolas.

3. Tolkien loved his day job.

To Tolkien, writing fantasy fiction was simply a hobby. The works he considered most important were his scholarly works, which included Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and A Middle English Vocabulary.

4. He was quite romantic.

At age 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, three years his senior. His guardian, a Catholic priest, was horrified that his ward was seeing a Protestant and ordered the boy to have no contact with Edith until he turned 21. Tolkien obeyed, pining after Edith for years until that fateful birthday, when he met with her under a railroad viaduct. She broke off her engagement to another man, converted to Catholicism, and the two were married for the rest of their lives. At Tolkien's instructions, their shared gravestone has the names "Beren" and "Luthien" engraved on it, a reference to a famous pair of star-crossed lovers from the fictional world he created.

5. Tolkien's relationship with C.S. Lewis was complicated.

Tolkien's fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) is often identified as his best friend and closest confidant. But the truth is, the pair had a much more troubled relationship. At first, the two authors were very close. In fact, Tolkien's wife Edith was reportedly jealous of their friendship. And it was Tolkien who convinced Lewis to return to Christianity. But their relationship cooled over what Tolkien perceived as Lewis's anti-Catholic leanings and scandalous personal life (he had been romancing an American divorcee at the time). Although they would never be as close as they were before, Tolkien regretted the separation. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote in a letter to his daughter that, “So far I have felt ... like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

6. Tolkien enjoyed clubbing.

Well, the extra-curricular, after-school sort. Wherever Tolkien went, he was intimately involved in the formation of literary and scholarly clubs. As a professor at Leeds University, for example, he formed the Viking Club. And during his stint at Oxford, he formed the Inklings, a literary discussion group.

7. He wasn't blowing smoke about those war scenes.

Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War, and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th (Service) Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was also present for some of the most bloody trench fighting of the war, including the Battle of the Somme. The deprivations of Frodo and Sam on their road to Mordor may have had their origins in Tolkien's time in the trenches, during which he contracted a chronic fever from the lice that infested him and was forced to return home. He would later say that all but one of his close friends died in the war, giving him a keen awareness of its tragedy that shines through in his writing.

8. Tolkien invented languages for fun.

A philologist by trade, Tolkien kept his mind exercised by inventing new languages, many of which (like the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin) he used extensively in his writing. He even wrote songs and poems in his fictional languages. In addition, Tolkien worked to reconstruct and write in extinct languages like Medieval Welsh and Lombardic. His poem "BagmÄ“ BlomÄ" ("Flower of the Trees") might be the first original work written in the Gothic language in over a millennium.

9. Tolkien been published almost as prolifically posthumously as he was when he was alive.

Most authors have to be content with the works they produce during their lifetime, but not Tolkien. His scribblings and random notes, along with manuscripts he never bothered to publish, have been edited, revised, compiled, redacted, and published in dozens of volumes after his death, most of them produced by his son Christopher. While Tolkien's most famous posthumous publication is The Silmarillion, other works include The History of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

10. Tolkien called Hitler a "ruddy little ignoramus."

Tolkien's academic writings on Old Norse and Germanic history, language, and culture were extremely popular among the Nazi elite, who were obsessed with recreating ancient Germanic civilization. But Tolkien was disgusted by Hitler and the Nazi party, and made no secret of the fact. He considered forbidding a German translation of The Hobbit after the German publisher, in accordance with Nazi law, asked him to certify that he was an "Aryan." Instead, he wrote a scathing letter asserting, among other things, his regret that he had no Jewish ancestors. His feelings are also evidenced in a letter he wrote to his son: "I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler ... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."

This piece originally ran in 2017.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER