Disaster At Loos

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 203rd installment in the series.   

September 25-28, 1915: Disaster at Loos 

The bloodiest defeat suffered by the British so far in the First World War, Loos was a monument to the incredible bravery of British soldiers and the confusion or outright incompetence of their commanders. The attack proceeded despite a general acknowledgement that British artillery faced a dire shortage of artillery shells, using thousands of new, totally untested troops, and involving the first (also untested) British use of poison gas in the war. In short it was a recipe for disaster, and that is what they got. 

The assault would be carried out by the British First Army under General Douglas Haig, as part of French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s ambitious plan calling for simultaneous attacks by the French Tenth Army in Artois and the French Third and Fourth Armies in Champagne. Together, Joffre hoped these coordinated offensives would form the arms of a giant pincer, cutting off the German armies in northern France.

The British First Army was composed of the I Corps and IV Corps, which would carry out the initial attack, and XI Corps, held in reserve to exploit the hoped-for strategic breakthrough. The I Corps, under Hubert Gough, consisted of the 2nd Division, 7th Division, and 9th Division; the IV Corps, under Henry Rawlinson, the 1st Division, 15th (Scottish) Division, and 47th (London) Division; and the XI Corps, under Richard Haking, the 12th (Eastern) Division, 21st Division, 24th Division, 46th (North Midland) Division, and the Guards Division, as well as the Cavalry Corps – although only the 21st and 24th Divisions were available when the battle began. 

The six divisions in the I and IV Corps who would lead the attack were given a daunting task. Although they enjoyed a two-to-one advantage over the Germans to begin with, the terrain was extremely unfavorable for an attack on the well-entrenched defenders: across the battlefield the German trenches were at least two hundred yards away from the British trenches, and in some places as much as 4,000 yards – all over a flat, featureless plain gently sloping upwards to elevated German positions, giving the latter an ideal vantage point for artillery spotting. 

After a final bombardment which mostly failed to cut the barbed wire in front of the German trenches (above), at dawn on September 25, 1915, the British opened 5,500 cylinders containing over 150 tons of chlorine gas, relying on prevailing winds to carry the gas over the German lines – but the weather failed to cooperate, and on the British left the gas swept back over the British lines, causing 2,200 casualties before the attack even began. 

Following this distinctly unpromising start, the British attack fell prey to further confusion, as some troops couldn’t hear the orders to attack over the incredible din of the artillery: the 15th (Scottish) Division, assigned to cross 1,500 yards to capture Loos itself, only realized it was time to attack when the division’s bagpiper marched along the parapet of the trench, piping them to battle – an incredible act of bravery for which he later received the Victoria Cross.

The troops who went over the top found themselves in a surreal and supremely dangerous scene, advancing across flat, open fields behind the gas cloud, mingling with smoke from artillery shells and lit by flares and “star shells,” while German machine guns and rifles crackled (top). One soldier in the London Irish of the 47th Division, Patrick MacGill, recalled: 

The air was vicious with bullets; a million invisible birds flicked their wings very close to my face. Ahead the clouds of smoke, sluggish low-lying fog, and fumes of bursting shells, thick in volume, receded towards the German trenches, and formed a striking background for the soldiers who were marching up a low slope towards the enemy’s parapet, which the smoke still hid from view. 

Even more bizarre, to show their disdain for danger the London Irish of the 47th Division dribbled a football across no man’s land as they advanced (below). 

Another soldier, John Jackson of the Scottish 6th Camerons, remembered the advance on Loos, where he states they killed Germans trying to surrender: 

In short rushes we kept on, grim and determined, through a tangled growth of long grass, till we came to the enemy front line… In spite of growing losses in our own ranks we kept on driving the Germans before us and soon had them on the run for the village, and here they set up a desperate defence. Their machine guns took a terrible toll from our thinning ranks, but still we hung on till we were again in hand-to-hand conflict with them. From house to house, and cellar to cellar, we hunted them. Machine-gunners slaying us from their hidden posts, threw up their hands crying “Kamerad”, when we got within striking distance, but they deserved and received no quarter. Cold steel and bombs did their duty then, and the village was strewn with dead and running with blood. 

The attackers suffered breathtaking casualties, as thousands were gunned down in the barbed wire entanglements, with the 47th Division, 7th Division, and 9th Division suffering especially heavy losses; the 9th Division was tasked with capturing a fortress-like complex called the Hohenzollern Redoubt, while the 7th Division had to capture another strongpoint called “The Quarries.” But despite the appalling losses, through sheer willpower they succeeded in capturing the German trenches along a stretch 4.5 miles long and up to two miles deep. 

The battle had reached a critical moment, and decisions now would later stir enormous controversy: Haig and Gough both claimed that if they had been able to employ the 21st Division and 24th Division, held in reserve, to follow up the gains of the 9th Division on the afternoon of September 25, they would have completed the strategic breakthrough and shatter the German front. However British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French refused to allow them to use the reserves at first, fearing a sudden German counterattack and arguing that the first wave troops should be able to carry the offensive through to the end. 

As a result, the reserves didn’t arrive at the front until the evening of September 25 and didn’t go into action until the following day – a crucial delay which gave the Germans a chance to rush reinforcements to plug the gap in their lines. Overnight seven new German divisions arrived and dug in along new defensive positions, including a long, low hill east of Loos called “Hill 70.” Much of the fighting over the following days would be a futile contest for control of the hill. 

One of the British reinforcements, W. Walker, recalled moving up the frontline positions in heavy autumn rain, which turned the battlefield into a quagmire, and seeing the ruins of Loos on the night of September 25 (above): 

It began to grow dark. Vivid wicked flashes could be seen and bright dazzling balls of red, green, and yellow light illuminated the flattish land in front… After stumbling on for another half-hour, sometimes up to the knees in liquid mud, I could observe by the light of the sky signals the ruined outline of a village. It was Loos. The moon now shone revealing the roofless walls of the houses, the open spaces where houses had once stood, marked by heaps of rubble. The village was slowly vanishing under the pounding of the guns. A German trench ran along the side of the street. 

Another one of the reinforcements, James N. Hall, recalled the chaotic scene as they waited to move forward through the unfamiliar trenches: 

We halted to wait for our trench guides at the village of Vermelles, about three miles back of our lines. The men lay down thankfully in the mud and many were soon asleep despite the terrific noise. Our batteries, concealed in the ruins of houses, were keeping up a steady fire and the German guns were replying almost as hotly. The weird flashes lit up the shattered walls with a fascinating, bizarre effect. By their light, I saw men lying with their heads thrown back over their pack-sacks, their rifles leaning across their bodies; others standing in attitudes of suspended animation. The noise was deafening.

Unbeknownst to them, the men of the 21st Division and 24th Division were in for an even more brutal reception than the first wave of attackers (most of them so depleted they could contribute little to the second push). The assault on Hill 70 began at 11 am on September 26, and by nightfall the 21st Division and 24th Division were basically destroyed, while the 1st Division, assigned to capture the nearby village of Hulluch, was in tatters. Walker recalled the attack on German positions on Hill 70:

The shell-fire was deafening enough, but the clatter that commenced with our further advance was abominable. It was as if the enemy were attacking with a fleet of motorcycles – it was the hellish machine guns. I saw no foe. Where he was I couldn’t gamble: somewhere in front, how distant or how near no one seemed to know. The firing was indescribably fierce; an invisible hail of lead winged past my ears unceasingly; one flicked my sleeve. How pitiful it is to recall. Our chaps fell like grass under the mower, mostly shot in the guts… Groans and shouting were added to the clamour. 

At some point in the afternoon Walker became a casualty as well: 

A bullet hit me; I feel its sharp sting yet; it felled me to the ground… it had pierced a hole in my right elbow. There was nothing for it but to walk, and, although the fire was growing intense, I managed to dodge the rest… It took me a long time to get to the casualty clearing station. There appeared to be hundreds of wounded all making for the same place… On arrival at the dressing station, came inoculation against tetanus; two delirious days spent in a ruined byre awaiting the ambulance. 

The experience of lying out in the open for days, either waiting for stretcher bearers or an ambulance, was a common one for wounded men at Loos, as at other battles. Harold Peat, a Canadian private, remembered lying wounded in the ruins of a farmhouse for two days before he was rescued: “I never lost consciousness. Darkness came and dawn. Another day went by and the shelling went on as before. Another night, another dawn and then two Highland stretcher-bearers came in.” Meanwhile troops occupying the captured German trenches confronted gruesome tasks, as described by Hall: “Many of the men had been literally blown to pieces, and it was necessary to gather the fragments in blankets. For weeks afterward we had to eat and sleep and work and think among such awful sights. We became hardened to them finally.” 

The last available reserve, the Guards Division, arrived to reinforce the beleaguered British troops on Hill 70 on September 27, but it was far too late to restore the momentum of the offensive. On September 28 the British positions had stabilized in a new defensive line, although the Germans succeeded in recapturing the Hohenzollern Redoubt on October 3rd. By October 8th, when a German counterattack failed, the Battle of Loos was effectively over. 

To the east the French offensive in Champagne was also grinding to a halt amid similar scenes of carnage and suffering. At first the French, who had a much larger supply of artillery shells than the British, succeeded in destroying the German frontline trenches – but the attack was frustrated by barbed wire in front of the German reserve trenches which lay behind. Mildred Aldrich, an American woman living in a small French village, transcribed a letter from a French soldier describing the French attack: 

At daybreak the bombardment recommenced--a terrible storm of shells of every calibre--bombs, torpedoes [mortar shells]--flew overhead to salute the Boches, and to complete the destruction which had been going on for three days… All along our front, in both directions, all we could see was a thick cloud of dust and smoke… Once there I seem to remember nothing in detail. It was as if, by enchantment, that I found myself in the midst of the struggle, in heaps of dead and dying. When I fell, and found myself useless in the fight, I dragged myself, on my stomach, towards our trenches. I met stretcher-bearers who were willing to carry me, but I was able to crawl, and so many of my comrades were worse off, that I refused. I crept two kilometres like that until I found a dressing-station. I was suffering terribly with the bullet in my ankle. They extracted it there and dressed the ankle, but I remained, stretched on the ground, two days before I was removed, and I had nothing to eat until I reached here yesterday--four days after I fell. But that could not be helped. There were so many to attend to. 

Edmond Genet, an American volunteering with the French Foreign Legion, described the effects of the French artillery bombardment in Champagne: 

The bombardment of the German trenches before the charge was terrific. The German line looked like a wall of fire and hellish flames from the bursting shells… We followed up the Colonials and passed part of the late morning in the captured German trenches. They were battered beyond description and filled with dead – mostly Germans… The sight of the dead lying about was awful. Most of them had been literally torn to pieces by the exploding shells. The sight of one will never pass from my memory. A Colonial was in a sitting posture against a small embankment. There was an expression of agonizing terror on his features, and no wonder, for below his waist he had been blown to shreds. One of his feet, the only thing recognizable of his lower anatomy, was lying several yards in front of him. I think we all shuddered as we passed.

Like the British, the French offensive also suffered from a failure to bring up reinforcements in time, according to the soldier Louis Barthas, who described the unnerving experience of trying to navigate through unfamiliar trenches filled with wounded men: 

We passed through the ruined village of La Targette; then we got caught up in an entanglement of trenches, crossing and recrossing the same places without finding the right path. We came upon men, isolated or in small groups, heading to the rear. Most gave no response to our questions. Others exclaimed, “The poor guys, the poor guys…” or “It’s horrible, frightful.” They seemed half-crazy… Soon whole battalions and companies were getting mixed up in an inextricable confusion… 

In a letter home Genet painted a picture of abject misery as the French offensive petered out in the final days of September: 

We continued on our advance until darkness set in and lay all that night in a drenching rain in watery mud. Sleep was practically impossible. Shells were dropping around us every few minutes and anyway the horrors of the day just closed were too awful to allow pleasant dreams or even sleep to follow. All night the cries of the dying could be heard. I felt as though I were in some weird nightmare. I wish it had been, for then I could have awakened and found it to be only a dream. 

The Allied losses were staggering: the British suffered 60,000 casualties, including 11,000 dead (among them Rudyard Kipling’s son John), while the French suffered 192,000 casualties, presumably with a similar proportion killed in action. According to the British soldier Jackson, “The losses of the division ran into the thousands and our own battalion had lost 700 out of 950 who went into action.” Genet, in the French Foreign Legion, estimated: “In an attack we made on September 28, out of our company of 250 there are not quite 60 left…” The Germans sustained around 150,000 casualties. 

British and French newspapers did their best to paint the fall offensive as a great victory, but ordinary people were fast becoming inured to official propaganda. Aldrich later wrote in her diary: “For several days our hearts were high. Then there began to creep into the papers hints that it had been a gallant advance, but not a great victory, and far too costly, and that there had been blunders…” And the British diarist Vera Brittain remembered the slow dawning of reality on the home front:

“Two Real Victories at Last!” announced the Daily Mail in exuberant headlines… Gradually, after a few days in which the awful sluggishness of the hours seemed a specially devised torture of hell, came the usual apologetic modifications of our “great victory,” and, still later, the lists showing that price that we had paid for this sorry achievement. The country, though growing accustomed to horror, staggered at the devastating magnitude of the cost of Loos. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

7 Things You Might Not Know About Mario Lopez

Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley
Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley

While several of the actors featured in the 1990s young-adult series Saved by the Bell have fared well following the show’s end in 1994, Mario Lopez is in a class by himself. The versatile actor-emcee can be seen regularly on Extra, as host of innumerable beauty pageants, and as the author of several best-selling books on fitness. For more on Lopez, check out some of the more compelling facts we’ve rounded up on the multi-talented performer.

1. A WITCH DOCTOR SAVED HIS LIFE.

Born on October 10, 1973, in San Diego, California to parents Mario and Elvia Lopez, young Mario was initially the picture of health. But things quickly took a turn for the worse. In his 2014 autobiography, Just Between Us, Lopez wrote that he began having digestive problems immediately after birth, shrinking to just four pounds. Though doctors administered IV hydration, they told his parents nothing more could be done. Desperate, his father reached out to a witch doctor near Rosarito, Mexico who had cured his spinal ailments years earlier. The healer mixed a drink made of Pedialyte, Carnation evaporated milk, goat’s milk, and other unknown substances. It worked: Lopez kept it down and began growing, so much so that his mother declared him “the fattest baby you had ever seen in your life.”

2. HE STARTED ACTING AT 10.

A highly active kid who got involved in both tap and jazz dancing and amateur wrestling, Lopez was spotted by a talent scout during a dance competition at age 10 and was later cast in a sitcom, a.k.a. Pablo, in 1984. That led to a role in the variety show Kids Incorporated and in the 1988 Sean Penn feature film Colors. In 1989, at the age of 16, he won the role of Albert Clifford “A.C.” Slater in Saved by the Bell. By 1992, Lopez was making public appearances at malls, where female fans would regularly toss their underthings in his direction.

3. HE COULD PROBABLY BEAT YOU UP.

Lopez wrestled as an amateur throughout high school. According to the Chula Vista High School Foundation, Lopez was a state placewinner at 189 pounds in 1990. (On Saved by the Bell, Slater was also a wrestler.) He later complemented his grappling ability with boxing, often sparring professionals like Jimmy Lange and Oscar De La Hoya in bouts for charity. In 2018, Lopez posted on Instagram that he received his blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Gracie Barra Glendale instructor Robert Hill.

4. HE TURNED DOWN PLAYGIRL.

Lopez’s active lifestyle has made for a trim physique, but he’s apparently unwilling to take off more than his shirt. In 2008, Lopez said he was approached to pose for Playgirl but declined. The magazine reportedly offered him $200,000.

5. HE WAS MARRIED FOR TWO WEEKS.

Lopez had a well-publicized marriage to actress Ali Landry, but not for all the right reasons. The two were married in April 2004 and split just two weeks later, with Landry alleging Lopez had not been faithful. Lopez later disclosed he had made a miscalculation during his bachelor party in Mexico, cheating on Landry just days before the ceremony.

6. HE APPEARED ON BROADWAY.

Lopez joined the cast of Broadway’s A Chorus Line in 2008, portraying Zach, the director who coaches the cast of aspiring dancers. (It was his first stage appearance since he participated in a grade school play, where he played a tree.) His run, which lasted five months, was perceived to be part of a rash of casting choices on Broadway revolving around hunky performers to attract audiences. The role was thought to be the start of a resurgence for Lopez, who had previously appeared on Dancing with the Stars and has been a co-host of the pop culture newsmagazine show Extra since 2007.

7. HE BELIEVES HIS DOG SUFFERED FROM POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION.

In 2010, Lopez and then-girlfriend (now wife) Courtney Mazza had their first child, Gia. According to Lopez, his French bulldog, Julio César Chavez Lopez, exhibited signs of depression following the new addition to the household. Lopez also said he used his extensive knowledge of dogs to better inform his voiceover work as a Labrador retriever in 2009’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas and 2010’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation.

The Legend of Cry Baby Lane: The Lost Nickelodeon Movie That Was Too Scary for TV

Nickelodeon, Viacom
Nickelodeon, Viacom

Several years ago, rumors about a lost Nickelodeon movie branded too disturbing for children’s television began popping up around the internet. They all referenced the same plot: A father of conjoined twins was so ashamed of his sons that he hid them away throughout their childhood. (This being a made-for-TV horror movie, naturally one of the twins was evil.)

After one twin got sick the other soon followed, with both boys eventually succumbing to the illness. To keep the town from discovering his secret, the father separated their bodies with a rusty saw and buried the good one at the local cemetery and the evil one at the end of a desolate dirt road called Cry Baby Lane, which also happened to be the title of the rumored film. According to the local undertaker, anyone who ventured down Cry Baby Lane after dark could hear the evil brother crying from beyond the grave.

Cry Baby Lane then jumps to present day (well, present day in 2000), where a group of teens sneaks into the local graveyard in an effort to contact the spirit of the good twin. After holding a seance, they learn that the boys' father had made a mistake and mixed up the bodies of his children—burying the good son at the end of Cry Baby Lane and the evil one in the cemetery. Meaning those ghostly wails were actually the good twin crying out for help. But the teens realized the error too late: The evil twin had already been summoned and quickly began possessing the local townspeople.

MOVIE OR MYTH?

Parents were appalled that such dark content ever made it onto the family-friendly network, or so the story goes, and after airing the film once the Saturday before Halloween in 2000, Nickelodeon promptly scrubbed it from existence. But with no video evidence of it online for years, some people questioned whether Cry Baby Lane had ever really existed in the first place.

“Okay, so this story sounds completely fake, Nick would NEVER air this on TV,” one Kongregate forum poster said in September 2011. “And why would this be made knowing it’s for kids? This story just sounds too fake …”

While the folklore surrounding the film may not be 100 percent factual, Nickelodeon quickly confirmed that the “lost” Halloween movie was very real, and that it did indeed contained all the rumored twisted elements that have made it into a legend.

Before Cry Baby Lane was a blip in Nick’s primetime schedule, it was nearly a $100 million theatrical release. Peter Lauer, who had previously directed episodes of the Nick shows The Secret World of Alex Mack and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, co-wrote the screenplay with KaBlam! co-creator Robert Mittenthal. Cry Baby Lane, which would eventually spawn urban legends of its own, was inspired by a local ghost story Lauer heard growing up in Ohio. “There was a haunted farmhouse, and if you went up there at midnight, you could hear a baby crying and it’d make your high school girlfriend scared,” he told The Daily.

BIG SCARES ON A SMALL BUDGET

Despite Nickelodeon’s well-meaning intentions, parent company Paramount wasn’t keen on the idea of turning the screenplay into a feature film. The script was forgotten for about a year, until Nick got in touch with Lauer about producing Cry Baby Lane—only this time as a $800,000 made-for-TV movie. The director gladly signed on.

Even with the now-meager budget, Cry Baby Lane maintained many of the same elements of a much larger picture. In a bid to generate more publicity around the project, Nickelodeon cast Oscar nominee Frank Langella as the local undertaker (a role Lauer had originally wanted Tom Waits to play). All the biggest set pieces from the screenplay were kept intact, and as a result, the crew had no money left to do any extra filming.

Only two scenes from the movie ended up getting cut—one that alluded to skinny dipping and another that depicted an old man’s head fused onto the body of a baby in a cemetery. The story of a father performing amateur surgery on the corpses of his sons, however, made it into the final film.

The truth of what happened after Cry Baby Lane premiered on October 28, 2000 has been muddied over the years. In most retellings, Nickelodeon received an "unprecedented number" of complaints about the film and responded by sealing it away in its vault and acting like the whole thing never happened. But if that version of events is true, Nick has never acknowledged it.

Even Lauer wasn’t aware of any backlash from parents concerned about the potentially scarring effects of the film until The Daily made him aware of the rumors years later. “All I know is that they aired it once,” he told the paper. “I just assumed they didn’t show it again because they didn’t like it! I did it, I thought it failed, and I moved on.”

But the idea that the movie was pulled from airwaves for being too scary for kids isn’t so far-fetched. Though Cry Baby Lane never shows the conjoined twins being sawed apart on screen, it does pair the already-unsettling story with creepy images of writhing worms, broken glass, and animal skulls. This opening sequence, combined with the spooky, empty-eyed victims of possession that appear later, and multiple scenes where a child gets swallowed by a grave, may have made the film slightly more intense than the average episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?

IMPERFECT TIMING

Cry Baby Lane premiered at a strange time in internet history: Too early for pirated copies to immediately spring up online yet late enough for it to grow into a web-fueled folktale. The fervor surrounding the film peaked in 2011, when a viral Reddit thread about Cry Baby Lane caught the attention of one user claiming to have the so-called “lost” film recorded on VHS. He later uploaded the tape for the world to view and suddenly the lost movie was lost no longer.

News of the unearthed movie made waves across the web, and instead of staying quiet and waiting for the story to die down, Nickelodeon decided to get in on the hype. That Halloween, Nick aired Cry Baby Lane for the first time in over a decade. Regardless of whether the movie had previously been banned or merely forgotten, the network used the mystery surrounding its origins to their PR advantage.

“We tried to freak people out with it,” a Nick employee who worked at The 90s Are All That (now The Splat), the programming block that resurrected Cry Baby Lane (and who wished to remain anonymous) said of the promotional campaign for the event. “They were creepy and a little glitchy. We were like, ‘This never aired because it was too scary and we’re going to air it now.’”

Cry Baby Lane now makes regular appearances on Nickelodeon’s '90s block around Halloween, which likely means Nick hasn’t received enough complaints to warrant locking it back in the vault. And during less spooky times of the year, nostalgic horror fans can find the full movie on YouTube.

The mystery surrounding Cry Baby Lane’s existence may have been solved, but the urban legend of the movie that was “too scary for kids’ TV” persists—even at the network that produced it.

“People who were definitely working at Nickelodeon in 2000, but didn’t necessarily work on [Cry Baby Lane] were like, ‘Yeah I heard about it, I remember it being a thing,'" the Nick employee says. “It’s sort of like its own legend within the company.”

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