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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.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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15 Must-See Holiday Horror Movies
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Families often use the holidays as an excuse to indulge in repeat viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Elf. But for a certain section of the population, the yuletide is all about horror. Although it didn’t truly emerge until the mid-1970s, “holiday horror” is a thriving subgenre that often combines comedy to tell stories of demented Saint Nicks and lethal gingerbread men. If you’ve never seen Santa slash someone, here are 15 movies to get you started.

1. THANKSKILLING (2009)

Most holiday horror movies concern Christmas, so ThanksKilling is a bit of an anomaly. Another reason it’s an anomaly? It opens in 1621, with an axe-wielding turkey murdering a topless pilgrim woman. The movie continues on to the present-day, where a group of college friends are terrorized by that same demon bird during Thanksgiving break. It’s pretty schlocky, but if Turkey Day-themed terror is your bag, make sure to check out the sequel: ThanksKilling 3. (No one really knows what happened to ThanksKilling 2.)

2. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

Fittingly, the same man who brought us A Christmas Story also brought us its twisted cousin. Before Bob Clark co-wrote and directed the 1983 saga of Ralphie Parker, he helmed Black Christmas. It concerns a group of sorority sisters who are systematically picked off by a man who keeps making threatening phone calls to their house. Oh, and it all happens during the holidays. Black Christmas is often considered the godfather of holiday horror, but it was also pretty early on the slasher scene, too. It opened the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and beat Halloween by a full four years.

3. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)

This movie isn’t about Santa Claus himself going berserk and slaughtering a bunch of people. But it is about a troubled teen who does just that in a Santa suit. Billy Chapman starts Silent Night, Deadly Night as a happy little kid, only to witness a man dressed as St. Nick murder his parents in cold blood. Years later, after he has grown up and gotten a job at a toy store, he conducts a killing spree in his own red-and-white suit. The PTA and plenty of critics condemned the film for demonizing a kiddie icon, but it turned into a bona fide franchise with four sequels and a 2012 remake.

4. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

This Finnish flick dismantles Santa lore in truly bizarre fashion, and it’s not easy to explain in a quick plot summary. But Rare Exports involves a small community living at the base of Korvatunturi mountain, a major excavation project, a bunch of dead reindeer, and a creepy old naked dude who may or may not be Santa Claus. Thanks to its snowy backdrop, the movie scored some comparisons to The Thing, but the hero here isn’t some Kurt Russell clone with equally feathered hair. It’s a bunch of earnest kids and their skeptical dads, who all want to survive the holidays in one piece.

5. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

To All a Goodnight follows a by-now familiar recipe: Add a bunch of young women to one psycho dressed as Santa Claus and you get a healthy dose of murder and this 1980 slasher flick. Only this one takes place at a finishing school. So it’s fancier.

6. KRAMPUS (2015)

Although many Americans are blissfully unaware of him, Krampus has terrorized German-speaking kids for centuries. According to folklore, he’s a yuletide demon who punishes naughty children. (He’s also part-goat.) That’s some solid horror movie material, so naturally Krampus earned his own feature film. In the movie, he’s summoned because a large suburban family loses its Christmas cheer. That family has an Austrian grandma who had encounters with Krampus as a kid, so he returns to punish her descendants. He also animates one truly awful Jack-in-the-Box.

7. THE GINGERDEAD MAN (2005)

“Eat me, you punk b*tch!” That’s one of the many corny catchphrases spouted by the Gingerdead Man, an evil cookie possessed by the spirit of a convicted killer (played by Gary Busey). The lesson here, obviously, is to never bake.

8. JACK FROST (1997)

No, this isn’t the Michael Keaton snowman movie. It’s actually a holiday horror movie that beat that family film by a year. In this version, Jack Frost is a serial killer on death row who escapes prison and then, through a freak accident, becomes a snowman. He embarks on a murder spree that’s often played for laughs—for instance, the cops threaten him with hairdryers. But the comedy is pretty questionable in the infamous, and quite controversial, Shannon Elizabeth shower scene.

9. ELVES (1989)

Based on the tagline—“They’re not working for Santa anymore”—you’d assume this is your standard evil elves movie. But Elves weaves Nazis, bathtub electrocutions, and a solitary, super grotesque elf into its utterly absurd plot. Watch at your own risk.

10. SINT (2010)

The Dutch have their own take on Santa, and his name is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas travels to the Netherlands via steamship each year with his racist sidekick Zwarte Piet. But otherwise, he’s pretty similar to Santa. And if Santa can be evil, so can Sinterklaas. According to the backstory in Sint (or Saint), the townspeople burned their malevolent bishop alive on December 5, 1492. But Sinterklaas returns from the grave on that date whenever there’s a full moon to continue dropping bodies. In keeping with his olden origins, he rides around on a white horse wielding a golden staff … that he can use to murder you.

11. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)

Ever wonder where Santa came from? This horror-comedy claims he comes from the worst possible person: Satan. The devil’s kid lost a bet many years ago and had to pretend to be a jolly gift-giver. But now the terms of the bet are up and he’s out to act like a true demon. That includes killing Fran Drescher and James Caan, obviously.

12. ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (2015)

Another Santa slasher is on the loose in All Through the House, but the big mystery here is who it is. This villain dons a mask during his/her streak through suburbia—and, as the genre dictates, offs a bunch of promiscuous young couples along the way. The riddle is all tied up in the disappearance of a little girl, who vanished several years earlier.

13. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

Several years before Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered protests for its anti-Kringle stance, Christmas Evil put a radicalized Santa at the center of its story. The movie’s protagonist, Harry Stadling, first starts to get weird thoughts in his head as a kid when he sees “Santa” (really his dad in the costume) groping his mom. Then, he becomes unhealthily obsessed with the holiday season, deludes himself into thinking he’s Santa, and goes on a rampage. The movie is mostly notable for its superfan John Waters, who lent commentary to the DVD and gave Christmas Evil some serious cult cred.

14. SANTA CLAWS (1996)

If you thought this was the holiday version of Pet Sematary, guess again. The culprit here isn’t a demon cat in a Santa hat, but a creepy next-door neighbor. Santa Claws stars B-movie icon Debbie Rochon as Raven Quinn, an actress going through a divorce right in the middle of the holidays. She needs some help caring for her two girls, so she seeks out Wayne, her neighbor who has an obsessive crush on her. He eventually snaps and dresses up as Santa Claus in a ski mask. Mayhem ensues.

15. NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980)

Because the holidays aren’t over until everyone’s sung “Auld Lang Syne,” we can’t count out New Year’s Eve horror. In New Year’s Evil, lady rocker Blaze is hosting a live NYE show. Everything is going well, until a man calls in promising to kill at midnight. The cops write it off as a prank call, but soon, Blaze’s friends start dropping like flies. Just to tie it all together, the mysterious murderer refers to himself as … “EVIL.”

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