Huge Bombardment Opens Fall Offensive

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 202nd installment in the series.    

September 21, 1915: Huge Bombardment Opens Fall Offensive 

After a year of war in which failed frontal assaults on entrenched defenders resulted in mind-boggling casualties, commanders on both sides understood that simple bravery wasn’t enough to win battles: they needed artillery, and lots of it. 

Thus when the French and British began their ill-fated fall offensive on September 21, 1915, the attack was announced by one of the heaviest artillery bombardment in history, with almost continuous shelling of German positions over the next 72 hours – most of it by French artillery, due to the continuing British shell shortage (top, French artillery in action). After this unprecedented fusillade pulverized the German trenches, Allied troops were supposed to advance from Artois and Champagne in a giant pincer formation – but the French attack in the Second Battle Champagne was foiled by intact barbed wire protecting German reserve trenches, while the smaller British bombardment proved insufficient to break up the German frontline defenses in the Third Battle of Artois, better known as the Battle of Loos. 

Although it ultimately failed the bombardment from September 21-24 was astonishing to onlookers who saw (and heard) thousands of guns open up almost simultaneously and fire almost nonstop for three full days. British junior officer Alexander Douglas Gillespie, in one of his last letters home, described the French bombardment in Artois (below, a view of the bombardment of Roclincourt, near Arras, from an observation balloon, on September 23, 1915): 

… sometimes there was almost one continuous roar of shells leaving the guns and bursting far away, with a swish like a waterfall as they rushed overhead. I climbed up to a place where I could see the bursts of flame far and near over the level country, and long afterwards the deep ‘cr-rump’ of the shell came to my ears; a lot of houses had been set on fire, and were blazing fiercely, so that it was a weird and wonderful sight; and sometimes there would be a minute of complete silence – still moonlight and the mist rising form the hollows – and then with a flash and a roar the guns would open again. 

Louis Barthas, a reservist from the south of France, left a similar description of the French bombardment in Artois: “We could hear a violent cannonade all along the front. You couldn’t make out individual cannons firing. It was more like an uninterrupted roar, like in a violent storm when the single claps of thunder, close together, form a continuous rumbling sound.” According to Barthas French officers were so confident of a breakthrough that, anticipating a return to the war of movement, they ordered the attacking troops to wear white cloth squares on their backs, so artillery spotters in airplanes could identify them as they advanced deep into enemy territory. 

Meanwhile to the east Captain Henri de Lécluse, Comte de Trévoëdal, recalled witnessing the bombardment preceding the French attack in Champagne (below, German frontline trenches after the bombardment): 

From on high, from one of the rare promontories which dominated the immense plain, we had contemplated the impressive spectacle of this cannonade of which, for nearly a week, we heard the stunning din, night and day, several kilometers away. On all the front, and everywhere you looked, explosions were occurring. Ones produced by the heavy shells of the 150-mm and 220-mm raised white chalk clouds which mixed with the black smoke of the powder climbing in the sky in spiral curls of thick smoke much as unchained volcanoes… the spectacle was fantastic, and the appearance of the terrain, after seventy-two hours of uninterrupted heavy shelling, which had literally pulverized the German trenches, escaped all description. Just picture an infinity of shell holes overlapping each other, strewn with the debris of stakes, pieces of iron wires, shell fragments, lumps of cast metal, parcels of equipment and fragments of arms, torpedoes [mortar shells] and unexploded grenades, all of that sprinkled with this whitish dust characteristic of the Chalkland. 

As shells poured down on the German positions, the French and British soldiers prepared for the “big push” on September 25. They would be facing poison gas and a terrible new weapon deployed by the Germans that summer – the flamethrower. Shortly before the battle Edmond Genet, an American volunteer in the French Foreign Legion, described some of the countermeasures employed by Allied troops, and the terrifying appearance that resulted: 

The Allies’ troops are frightful-looking creatures when they make a charge for the German lines,– respirators covering the mouth and nose, goggles over the eyes, grease covering the rest of the face and the hands and arms to prevent burning from petrol, etc., sometimes metal casques over the top of the head… We look more like the fiends of Satan himself than human men. 

The increasing brutality of the war was also reflected in hardening attitudes towards prisoners of war. Although both sides officially forbade their troops from killing enemy soldiers who surrendered, in fact the practice was more common than anyone cared to admit. The British novelist Robert Graves later wrote: 

Nearly every instructor in the Mess could quote specific instances of prisoners having been murdered on the way back. The commonest motives were, it seems, revenge for the death of friends or relatives, jealousy of the prisoner’s trip to a comfortable prison camp in England, military enthusiasm, fear of being suddenly overpowered by the prisoners, or, more simply, impatience with the escorting job. In any of these cases the conductors would report on arrival at Headquarters that a German shell had killed the prisoners; and no questions would be asked. 

But not everyone succumbed to these savage impulses. Before the attack Barthas, gripped by growing hatred for his commanding officers, strongly objected to an order to issue his men with cutlasses, which he said could serve only one purpose:

“These are arms for murderers, not for soldiers,” I exclaimed. “It matters little to me,” said the officer, pushing me out the door, “and keep your opinions to yourself.” No, I won’t keep these reflections to myself, and I’ll explain it to my comrades, the way it was clearly told elsewhere, that they were for finishing off the wounded and for killing prisoners. “Well, my cutlass won’t be used for such crimes,” I told them, and right in front of everybody I tossed mine up onto the roof of an adjacent house. Almost everybody got rid of theirs, and no one asked what happened to them. 

Across France, as the big day approached, ordinary rank and file soldiers and officers were skeptical about their chances. Graves recorded one all-too-accurate prediction from a drunken staff colonel (apparently somewhat confused about who he was talking to) who pointed out, on the eve of battle, that their division commander had never actually been in combat before, while the troops of their “New Army” division were completely untested:

“Charley, see that silly old woman over there? Calls himself General Commanding! Doesn’t know where he is; doesn’t know where his division is; can’t even read a map properly. He’s marched the poor sods off their feet and left his supplies behind, God knows how far back… And tomorrow he’s going to fight a battle. Doesn’t know anything about battles; the men have never been in trenches before, and tomorrow’s going to be a glorious balls-up, and the day after tomorrow he’ll be sent home… Really, Charley, it’s just as I say, no exaggeration. You mark my words!”

See the previous installment or all entries.

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

15 Game of Thrones Products Every Fan Needs

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Though Game of Thrones might be coming to its official end, that doesn’t mean that your fandom can’t—or won’t—carry on. Whether you’re a years-long defender of House Stark or have been rooting for House Targaryen since the beginning, there’s a candle, collectible pin, coffee mug, card game, and pretty much anything else you can imagine with your name (and preferred sigil) on it.

1. A Song of Ice and Fire Book Series; $46

Bantam's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' book series

Bantam, Amazon

If you’ve never read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the series is based, plenty more Westerosi drama awaits. And just because you’ve seen every episode of the series 10 times doesn’t mean you know which way the books will turn. (The TV show diverged from their narrative a long time ago—and dozens of the characters who have been killed off on your television screen are still alive and well in the books.) Plus, as Martin has yet to complete the series, you may just catch up in time for the newest book.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Map Marker Wine Stopper Set; $50

Nobody solves a problem like Tyrion Lannister … and his thought process usually includes copious amounts of wine (Dornish if you’ve got it). Something tells us you’re going need some vino yourself to get through the giant, hour-long hole left in your Sunday nights once Game of Thrones officially ends. Make sure you don’t let a drop of it go to waste by keeping one of these six wine stoppers—each one carved to represent the sigil of the most noble houses in the Seven Kingdoms—handy.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

3. Winterfell Coffee Mug; $25

If coffee is more your speed—we get it: the night is dark and full of terrors—this simple-yet-elegant Winterfell mug is an easy way to communicate to your co-workers why you’re typically a little bleary-eyed on Monday mornings.

Buy it: HBO Shop

4. Hodor Door Stop; $12

A 3D-printed Hodor door stop, inspired by 'Game of Thrones'

3D Cauldron, Amazon

An important part of being a Game of Thrones fan is accepting that showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have no problem killing off your favorite characters, often in brutal ways. One of the series’ most memorable deaths was that of Hodor, Bran Stark’s personal mode of transport, who we loved despite the fact that the only word he ever uttered for six seasons was “Hodor”—and who we loved even more when, in the final moments of his life, we learned why that was the case. Pay tribute to the gentle giant, and his backstory, with this 3D-printed door stop.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Tarot Card Deck; $25

A 'Game of Thrones' tarot card deck, from Chronicle Books

Chronicle Books, Amazon

Channel your inner Maggy the Frog and see what the future holds for you and your loved ones (your enemies, too, if the mood strikes you) with Chronicle Books’s gorgeously packaged tarot card deck. The tarot tradition and Game of Thrones mythology blend seamlessly together in this box of goodies, which includes an instruction book and illustrated cards featuring your favorite characters and most beloved scenes from the show.

Buy it: Amazon or Chronicle Books

6. Fire and Blood Candle; $12

Mad Queen or not, show that you still stand behind the Mother of Dragons by filling your home with this House Targaryen-inspired votive candle. Best of all: Just wait to see the look on the faces of your guests when they ask “Mmmm … what’s that smell?” If you’d prefer not to answer with “fire and blood—doesn’t it smell delicious?,” there are other scents available: one called "Moon of My Life My Sun and Stars," another called "Be a Dragon," and one inspired by the Iron Throne itself (which must smell like victory).

Buy it: HBO Shop

7. Clue: Game of Thrones; $50

Margaery Tyrell with the battle axe in Cersei’s bedchambers. Rewrite the rules—and brutal deaths—of Game of Thrones with this special edition of the classic board game, which tasks you with figuring out who murdered whom, using what weapon, and where the incident took place. A double-sided playing board lets you choose whether you want to set the game in The Red Keep or Meereen.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

8. Game of Thrones Monopoly; $24

'Game of Thrones Monopoly' game board

Hasbro, Amazon

Who wants to be the Lord or Lady of Winterfell when you can become the preeminent real estate mogul of all the Seven Kingdoms? This special-edition Monopoly board puts a distinctly Westerosian twist on the classic game, with silver tokens to represent the sigils of each of the main houses and a card holder that plays the series’ haunting score whenever you press it.

Buy it: Amazon or Best Buy

9. House Stark Hoodie; $60

If you really wanted to dress like a Stark, you’d have a master blacksmith on hand to help customize your armor—or at least turn your IKEA rug into a luxurious cape. If you’re far less crafty, there’s always this full-zip hoodie featuring an embroidered direwolf on the front and an outlined illustration of the same on the back. The minimalist design is a way to show your fandom in a way that, to the untrained eye, might just look like you’re a fan of wolves. But the rest of us will know better. And approve.

Buy it: ThinkGeek

10. Deluxe Iron Throne Funko Pop! Set; $130

Funko's Iron Throne Pop! set of five

Funko, HBO Shop

Though it seems unlikely that a few of these characters will ever sit on the Iron Throne (either because they’re dead or have gone mad), a fan can always hope. And buying them as part of this five-piece set is an easy way to collect them all. If you don’t see your favorite character here, Amazon has got plenty more squat-headed figures to choose from, including Arya, Brienne of Tarth, Rhaegal (poor Rhaegal), and Ghost (poor Ghost). If you ever happen upon a headless Ned Stark Pop!, grab it; this hard-to-find figure can sell for more than $2000 on eBay.

Buy it: HBO Shop

11. Iron Throne Bookend; $60

After devoting more than eight years of your life to seeing Game of Thrones all the way through, maybe it’s you who deserves the Iron Throne. You can’t sit on this 7.5-inch replica, the base of which features sigils from all the noble houses, but you can show off your fancy George R.R. Martin book collection … or all that dragon fan fiction you’ve been working on.

Buy it: Best Buy or the HBO Shop

12. Game of Thrones Music Box; $13

'Game of Thrones' music box

Shenzhen Youtang Trade Co., Amazon

Channel your inner Arya by psyching yourself up with the iconic Game of Thrones theme song whenever you feel the need to hear it with this hand-cranked music box.

Buy it: Amazon

13. Iron Throne Tankard; $70

Show your guests who's boss at your next dinner party—or raucous feast—as you take your place at the head of the table and guzzle your mead (or giant's milk—we don't judge) from this Iron Throne-themed tankard, completed with sword handle.

Buy it: HBO Shop

14. Game of Thrones Socks; $8

It gets cold in the North. Keep your tootsies warm with this six-pack of stylish ankle-cut socks.

Buy it: Target

15. Living Language Dothraki; $16

A copy of the Living Language Dothraki language course

Living Language, Amazon

By now, you've surely learned at least a handful of common Dothraki words and phrases. But if you wan to become fluent in the (fictional) language, this language course is one way to do it. Now: Finne zhavvorsa anni?

Buy it: Amazon

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