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.

12 Facts About Revenge of the Nerds For Its 35th Anniversary

Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

In the summer of 1984, nerds were mainly perceived as guys who wore pocket protectors and had tape on their glasses. But in Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs was inventing the type of nerd culture we’re familiar with today. Decades later, nerds rule the world.

Revenge of the Nerds starred then-unknowns Anthony Edwards, Robert Carradine, Curtis Armstrong, James Cromwell, Larry B. Scott, John Goodman, and Timothy Busfield. In the movie, the jock-filled Alpha Beta fraternity bullies the geeks on the campus of Adams College, so to fight back, they form a frat chapter under black fraternity Lambda Lambda Lambda (Tri-Lambs), and take down the jocks. The movie’s plot and title come from a magazine article published around that time about Silicon Valley innovators—who just happened to be nerds.

The film, which was budgeted at $6 million, only opened on 364 screens (it eventually expanded to 877). Somehow the movie had legs and grossed $40,874,452 at the box office and ranked as the 16th highest-grossing film of 1984. It was successful enough to spawn three sequels, none of which were as popular as the original. To celebrate Revenge of the Nerds' 35th anniversary, here are some geeky facts about the underdog comedy.

1. Greek officials at the University of Arizona objected to the movie being filmed on their campus.

The movie filmed at the University of Arizona, and involved the college’s Greek system. The Greek officials didn’t want the movie to be another Animal House, so they threatened to halt production. “We meet with the sororities, and we’re worried we’re about to deal with a bunch of feminists who are pissed because this is a fairly sexist movie,” the film’s director, Jeff Kanew, told the Arizona Daily Star. “I just say to them, ‘Look, I have kids, and I’ll tell you now, I’d let them see this movie. It’s about the triumph of the underdog, not judging a book by its cover. This is a good movie.’” The filmmakers won, and the Greeks allowed them to film there.

2. The set was one big party.

Ted McGinley—who played Alpha Beta honcho Stan Gable—told The A.V. Club: “I was so embarrassed to say Revenge Of The Nerds.” Kanew cast him because he saw him on the cover of a Men of USC calendar, sold at the University of Arizona bookstore. His good looks attracted “hot girls” from the UofA campus to watch the dailies with the cast and crew. “They had beer and pizza and sandwiches,” McGinley said. “I mean, you just don’t do that on movie sets. It was just so much fun, and I thought, ‘It can’t be better than this!’”

3. Curtis Armstrong knew it would be a good movie, even though his character wasn't fully fleshed out.

Curtis Armstrong filmed Risky Business but then was unemployed for a year before he got Revenge of the Nerds. “You have to realize the character of Booger in the original script was non-existent almost,” Armstrong told Entertainment Weekly. “What was there was just, ‘We’ve got b*sh!’ and ‘Mother’s little d**chebag’—those kinds of lines. I was looking at it and thinking, ‘How do I take this and even begin to make it likeable or accessible?’”

With its strong cast, writers, and director, Armstrong said, “It has to be a good movie. But I wasn’t sure how it was going to be taken as opposed to Risky Business, which was sort of an art-house-type movie. This was very much broader and very much cruder, but it had a message that went beyond sex jokes.”

4. The scenes between Booger and Takashi were improvised.

The actors would bring ideas to the director and vice versa, creating a lot of improvisation in the movie. In one scene, Booger and Takashi (Brian Tochi) engage in a friendly game of cards. But unbeknownst to Takashi, Booger tricks him. “We ran and got our cots, and Brian and I were next to each other,” Armstrong told Entertainment Weekly. “It wasn’t planned that we would be next to each other. It just happened that way.”

The production asked the guys to “come up with something” for them to film. “We had nothing at all!” Armstrong said. “We went to the prop people, and they had a deck of cards. And that’s where that scene [and Booger’s whole bit about taking money from Takashi] came from. And they liked it so much that, every time Takashi and I were in the room together, we would have to come up with something else.”

5. Lambda Lambda Lambda exists in real life.

On January 15, 2006, the University of Connecticut founded the co-ed social fraternity. It’s “unaffiliated with Greek Life” and is “dedicated to the enjoyment and enrichment of pop culture and to the brotherhood of its members. Tri-Lambs does not discriminate based on race, gender, religion, class, ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”

6. Booger's belch came from a camel.

In one of the film's more memorable scenes, Booger and Ogre compete in a belching contest. Booger takes a swig of beer and lets out a robust seven-second belch and wins the contest. But the effects were added in post-production. “I can’t even belch on command,” Armstrong told USA Today. “If you said to me, ‘Can you belch now?' I couldn’t do it.”

To make up for Armstrong’s dearth of gas, “They wound up finding a recording of a camel having an orgasm,” Armstrong said. “They took this sound and blended it in with a human belch.”

7. Curtis Armstrong wrote a bio for Booger, but it turned out to be about himself.

Because his character wasn’t fully developed, Armstrong wrote a one-page bio for Booger. Years later he re-read the bio and realized he and Booger had similarities. “I’d basically retold my life as Booger without even being aware of it,” Armstrong told Entertainment Weekly. “[One detail] was that [Booger] used nose-picking and belching as a defense mechanism because [he’s] insecure. Now, mind you, I did not pick my nose and belch because I was insecure. However, I was insecure growing up. I didn’t have dates or anything like that; I was not good around girls. But I had other ways of defending myself other than being crude and picking my nose. When I look at it now with some distance, I realize all I was doing was writing about myself.”

8. A Dallas test screening almost killed Revenge of the Nerds.

The film tested well in Las Vegas—an 85—but when the Fox executives took the movie to Dallas, the number dipped. “You’re gonna send us to Dallas to screen a movie that celebrates nerds and in which the black guys intimidate the white football players?!” director Kanew told the Arizona Daily Star. The movie scored in the 60s, which caused Fox to cut marketing for the film and only release it on 364 screens. “I don’t really understand what happened, but it hung around and grew and grew and grew,” Kanew said.

9. Poindexter was originally named after a prop guy.

When Timothy Busfield auditioned for the movie, his character didn’t have many lines, so he had to read Lamar’s lines. At the time, the character was named Lipschultz, after the prop guy. All that was written for the character description was “a violin-playing Henry Kissinger.”

“There was one line Lipschultz had in the original, but our prop guy was named Lipschultz, and he didn’t like the fact that there was a nerd named Lipschultz, so they changed it to Poindexter,” Busfield said during a San Francisco Sketchfest Nerds reunion. Busfield found Poindexter’s costume at a thrift store and showed up to the audition with his hair parted, and danced to “Beat It.”

10. The sequel to Revenge of the Nerds afforded Anythony Edwards a pool.

Anthony Edwards told The A.V. Club that he didn’t want to appear in Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, but acquiesced because the producers talked him into it. He’s hardly in the film, but the money he earned afforded him a simple luxury. “I ended up with a pool in my backyard that I called the Revenge of the Nerds II pool,” Edwards said. “Not that I’m complaining, but they seriously overpaid me for my weeks of work on the film, so I used it to put in a pool.”

11. A remake (thankfully) got shut down.

After two weeks of filming in the fall of 2006, a Revenge of the Nerds remake stopped production. Emory University in Atlanta pulled out of filming, but according to Variety, the real reason was because a Fox Atomic executive “was not completely satisfied with the dailies.” The cast included Adam Brody and Jenna Dewan.

12. Revenge of the Nerds pushed nerdom into the mainstream.

“I’m not going to say Revenge of the Nerds was responsible for everything in nerd culture, but I do think you could make an argument that that attitude began with the last scene in Revenge,” Armstrong told HuffPost. “The last scene—the scene I probably love above all in that movie—we’re at the pep rally and come out in front of everybody as nerds, and encourage these people of different generations to join them in their nerdness. I get teary thinking about it, and you could certainly make an argument that that was the beginning of embracing nerd culture by everybody.”

This story has been updated for 2019.

The Office Star Ellie Kemper Wants to Do a Reunion Episode

NBC - NBCUniversal Media
NBC - NBCUniversal Media

While rumors of The Office getting a reboot have been swirling around for years, the outlook on that happening any time soon doesn't look good. But a reunion episode might just be possible.

Ellie Kemper, who played Erin Hannon in the beloved series, recently stopped by Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen to dish about the sitcom and her thoughts on whether it might be making a return to the small screen: "I would love there to be a reboot, but I don't think there will be. So, that's a sad answer," Kemper admitted. "But maybe like a reunion episode? That would be fun."

E! News reports that Kemper isn’t the only cast member that wants to get the band back together. Jenna Fischer, who played Pam Beesly, also thinks a reunion episode would be a hit. “I think it's a great idea," Fischer said in 2018. "I would be honored to come back in any way that I'm able to.”

A key player in the series' success, however, is not so enthusiastic about the idea. Steve Carell, who played the infamous Michael Scott, doesn’t think a revival would be well-received. "The climate's different," Carell told Esquire back in 2018. "I mean, the whole idea of that character, Michael Scott, so much of it was predicated on inappropriate behavior. I mean, he's certainly not a model boss. A lot of what is depicted on that show is completely wrong-minded. That's the point, you know? But I just don't know how that would fly now.”

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