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.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Almost Had a Different Title

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a favorite for fans of both the Harry Potter book series and its film franchise. In addition to offering readers a more mature outing for Harry and the gang, the stakes are far more dangerous—and the characters’ hormones are all over the place.

The name Goblet of Fire is a pretty literal title, as that’s how Harry is forced into the Triwizard Tournament. In addition to being accurate, the title has a nice ring to it, but it was previously revealed that JK Rowling had some other names in the running.

In JK Rowling: A Bibliography 1997-2013, author Philip W. Errington reveals tons of unknown details about the Harry Potter series, so much so that Rowling herself described it as "slavishly thorough and somewhat mind-boggling." In it, Errington revealed that Goblet of Fire had at least three alternate titles: Harry Potter and the Death Eaters, Harry Potter and the Fire Goblet, and Harry Potter and the Three Champions were all working titles before the final decision was made.

While Death Eaters sounds far too depressing and scary to market as a children’s book, Fire Goblet just doesn’t have the elegance of Goblet of Fire. As for Three Champions? It's as boring as it is vague. So kudos to Rowling and her editor for definitely making the correct choice here.

It's not the only time a Harry Potter title led to a larger discussion—and some confusion. In 1998, readers around the world were introduced to Harry through the first book in the series: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. But elsewhere around the world, it was known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

As Errington explains in his book, the book's publisher wanted “a title that said ‘magic’ more overtly to American readers." They were concerned that Philosopher's Stone would feel "arcane," and proposed some alternatives. While Rowling agreed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, she later admitted that she regretted the decision.

"To be honest, I wish I hadn't agreed now," she explained. "But it was my first book, and I was so grateful that anyone was publishing me I wanted to keep them happy."

The 20 Best-Selling Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Movie soundtracks can be big business—sometimes bigger than the movie itself. (And sometimes better than the film itself.) In early December 2018, three soundtracks were in the Billboard Top 10, and Mariah Carey’s Glitter soundtrack has been in the news recently for reentering the charts. But they have a long way to go before entering the top echelon.

Here are the 20 best-selling movie soundtracks of all time—many of which have been on the list for decades.

(The following list is based on RIAA certified units).

1. The Bodyguard (1992)

Certified units: 18 million

Elvis Presley originally wanted to record Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” but his people wanted half the publishing rights. Parton refused and later commented that “when Whitney [Houston’s version] came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland."

2. Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Certified units: 16 million

CPR will never be the same.

3. Purple Rain (1984)

Certified units: 13 million

Prince wrote around 100 songs for the movie—and "Purple Rain" wasn’t even in that original group.

4. Forrest Gump (1994)

Certified units: 12 million

Like a box of chocolates, except songs, with everything from Jefferson Airplane to Lynyrd Skynyrd featured in Robert Zemeckis's Oscar-winning hit.

5. Dirty Dancing (1987)

Certified units: 11 million

Maybe don’t rush to get the album if you love the film’s songs: According to executive producer Jimmy Ienner, “We needed different mixes for the film and record ... For example, the guitars were dropped way down for the film because guitars weren’t a dominant instrument back then; saxophones were. We took out most of the synthesized stuff and replaced it with organs in the film version.”

6. Titanic (1997)

Certified units: 11 million

Céline Dion told Billboard that when she was recording "My Heart Will Go On," her thoughts were: “Sing the song, then get the heck out of there."

7. The Lion King (1994)

Certified units: 10 million

"Nants ingonyama" apparently translates to “Here comes a lion.” And if you've seen this Disney classic—which is about to get a live-action remake—you certainly know what "Hakuna Matata" means.

8. Footloose (1984)

Certified units: 9 million

When Ann Wilson of Heart was prepping to duet for the song “Almost Paradise” for Footloose, she broke her wrist. But she refused painkillers because they’d affect her singing voice.

9. Top Gun (1986)

Certified units: 9 million

The songs of Top Gun “still define the bombastic, melodramatic sound that dominated the pop charts of the [mid-80s],” according to AllMusic

10. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Certified units: 8 million

According to Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons, they were introduced to bluegrass through the Coen brothers's O Brother, Where Art Thou, saying “That movie kind of heralded the advent of bluegrass in mainstream British culture."

11. Grease (1978)

Certified units: 8 million

According to Box Office Mojo, Grease is the second highest-grossing musical of all time, beaten only by 2017’s Beauty and the Beast.

12. Waiting To Exhale (1995)

Certified units: 7 million

The song “Exhale” is famous for its "shoop" chorus. But writer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds explained that it’s a result of every time he wanted to write actual lyrics, they just got in the way.

13. The Little Mermaid (1989)

Certified units: 6 million

According to co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, “Part of Your World” was nearly cut from The Little Mermaid after a black-and-white and sometimes sketched version made a test audience squirm with boredom. Everyone kept with it until a more polished version solved the problem.

14. Pure Country (1992)

Certified units: 6 million

Not bad for a movie that only grossed $15 million (and one you've probably never heard of).

15. Flashdance (1983)

Certified units: 6 million

The song “Maniac” was originally inspired by a horror film the songwriters saw (the lyrics were rewritten for Flashdance).

16. Space Jam (1996)

Certified units: 6 million

Not only was "I Believe I Can Fly" the best-selling soundtrack single of 1997, but third place was Monica’s “For You I Will”—which is also from Space Jam.

17. The Big Chill (1983)

Certified units: 6 million

By RIAA certified units, The Big Chill soundtrack is the fifth biggest Motown album of all time.

18. City of Angels (1998)

Certified units: 5 million

One of the chief songs from the soundtrack—“Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette—caused some piracy issues. A California radio station got their hands on a bootlegged copy and played it. Someone recorded the song off the radio and uploaded it to the internet (this was in 1998) and even radio stations began playing illegally downloaded versions. As a result, Warner Music was forced to release the album to radio stations a week earlier than planned.

19. The Jazz Singer (1980)

Certified units: 5 million

Fun Fact: Neil Diamond won the first Razzie for Worst Actor for this movie and was also nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor.

20. Evita (1996)

Certified units: 5 million

Evita started off as a concept album in 1976. Then two years later it premiered on London’s West End. In 1979 it debuted on Broadway and an album was released that went platinum in the U.S. before Madonna got to it.

Honorable Mention: Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Certified units: 5 million

Whether a Broadway cast recording counts as a soundtrack or not is debatable, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cultural powerhouse managed to shift as many units as Madonna and Neil Diamond, according to the RIAA .

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