Agreeing Armageddon – The Somme

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 213th installment in the series.

December 8, 1915: Agreeing Armageddon – The Somme 

After the twin disasters of the Second Battle of Champagne and Loos, the French Army and British Expeditionary Force paused to regroup, resupply, bring up fresh troops and prepare for a second winter in the trenches. But the failure of these offensives did nothing to alter the strategic outlook of the men directing the war on the Western Front, and from December 6-8, 1915, top Allied commanders meeting behind closed doors agreed to a plan that would result in one of the bloodiest battles in history – the Somme. 

As representatives from France, Britain, Russia, Italy, and Serbia gathered at the Paris suburb of Chantilly for the Second Inter-Allied Conference (top; the first was in August), the situation was looking grim. Russia was temporarily out of the game following huge losses of men, material, and territory during the Central Powers’ successful summer offensive; Serbia was being crushed; Italy had achieved nothing in multiple attacks on the Isonzo front; and the British and French were just about to throw in the towel at Gallipoli.   

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To turn the situation around, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre proposed a bold plan involving simultaneous attacks on all fronts in order to cancel out the strategic advantage conferred by the enemy’s central position; by hitting Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire from every side at once, they would (hopefully) prevent them from shuttling troops back and forth between the different fronts to see off threats one by one, finally allowing the Allies to exploit their advantage in manpower. 

The memorandum presented by the French to the other Allies at Chantilly summarized the threat posed by the enemy’s central position: 

In the present situation the Germans are able to add 10 divisions, no longer required in Serbia, to their forces in reserve - about 12 divisions - on the French front.  Combined with the troops which could with safety be withdrawn from the Russian front, a mass of 25 to 30 divisions could be assembled.  If the enemy is permitted to carry out these movements, he will employ this force, acting on interior lines, on each front in succession… 

To prevent this, the memorandum advised, “The Allied armies ought to resume the general offensive on the Franco-British, Italian and Russian fronts as soon as they are in a state to do so. All the efforts of the Coalition must be exerted in the preparation and execution of this decisive action, which will only produce its full effect as a co-ordination of offensives.” 

In various theatres, the coordinated campaigns would eventually include Russia’s failed Lake Naroch Offensive on the Eastern Front in March 1916, followed by the stunning success of the Brusilov Offensive that summer; a Russian advance into eastern Anatolia on the Caucasian front; the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo, resulting in predictable failure, on the Italian front; and subsidiary campaigns by Britain against the Turks in the Sinai and Arabia (the Mesopotamian theatre was about to take a disastrous turn with the siege of Kut). The French also managed to persuade the reluctant British to keep the recently occupied position in Salonika in northern Greece, which would now be reinforced with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force from Gallipoli, thus threatening Bulgaria and maybe even encouraging Romania to join the Allies. 

However the main effort would fall to Britain and France on the Western Front, where Joffre contemplated a giant combined offensive against the German salient in northern France sometime in the spring or summer of 1916, focusing on the enemy’s defensive positions on both sides of the Somme River in Picardy. Joffre and BEF commander Sir John French (who was about to be replaced by Sir Douglas Haig) believed that concentrated, overwhelming artillery firepower, combined with control of the skies and huge numerical superiority on the ground, would allow them to shatter the German Second Army and threaten all the enemy armies to the southeast with encirclement, forcing the Germans into a general retreat. 

The Allies were prepared to commit phenomenal numbers of men and guns to this incredibly ambitious plan, calling for an attack on a 60-mile-long front: indeed, in addition to the British Fourth Army and French Sixth Army, the British were prepared to set aside an entire, new “Reserve Army” (later the Fifth Army) to exploit the hoped-for breakthrough. Altogether the British would advance with 400,000 men; to support this huge effort they would build new roads, railroads, and power stations, collect a fleet of thousands of trucks and other vehicles, and create a network of hundreds of miles of telephone wire.   

With the shell shortages of 1914-1915 finally easing, the Allies would for the first time have firepower to match the Germans: with over 1,500 guns and howitzers amassed, the preliminary bombardment at the Somme would last a week and consume 1.6 million shells, with virtually continuous firing during this period to pulverize German trenches and strongholds. To finish it off the British would tunnel 19 giant mines under the German positions, including one with 27 tons of high explosives, which together generated the largest man-made explosion in history up to that point. 

On paper the plan of attack looked invincible – but reality failed to live up to expectations. For one thing, many of the British troops were fresh recruits in Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener’s “New Army,” with plenty of enthusiasm but no combat experience. Furthermore the “creeping barrage” of artillery, meant to clear the way for the advancing infantry, was a mostly untested technique, and aerial observation failed to deliver the precise targeting of German artillery hoped for. Meanwhile, in addition to building a second line of defenses and starting a third, the Germans had also built deep dugouts, tunneled 40 feet or more below the surface, capable of sheltering entire battalions through the most punishing bombardments, to reemerge when the British and French infantry began their advance. 

The most important factor by far, however, was something none of the Allied commanders could have known – a plan already germinating in the mind of the German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who was also contemplating a mighty battle to end the war. As it happened the German blow would fall first, at a place called Verdun. 

“In Flanders Fields” 

On May 3, 1915, amidst the chaos of the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer, wrote a few short verses that were fated to become the iconic poem of the First World War. Wildly popular following its publication by the British magazine Punch on December 8, 1915, “In Flanders Fields” would go on to be used for propaganda purposes (especially in support of recruiting efforts) but is today appreciated more for its simple, lyrical encapsulation of the tragedy of the First World War. It also led to the adoption of the red poppy as a symbol of memory and support for veterans, especially in Britain. 

In Flanders Fields 

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

See the previous installment or all entries.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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