Haig Takes Command

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 214th installment in the series. 

December 15, 1915: Haig Takes Command 

As a year of unprecedented bloodshed drew to a close, the strategic deadlock on the battlefield claimed the biggest political casualties of the war so far in Britain, with the forced resignation of Sir John French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium, and the unofficial sidelining of Secretary of State for War Lord Herbert Kitchener. 

This was actually the second major political upheaval in Britain during the war: back in May 1915 the shell crisis forced Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to form a coalition government including the radical Liberal David Lloyd George in the newly created role of Minister of Munitions and Conservative leader Bonar Law as colonial secretary. As part of the shakeup Churchill resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty while Jackie Fisher resigned as First Sea Lord, reflecting public anger over the failed operation at Gallipoli, although Churchill was allowed to remain in the Cabinet in the ceremonial position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Wikimedia Commons [1, 3, 4] // Independent [2]

However the new coalition government did little to address many of the underlying problems, including the general indecision and lack of direction that produced an extemporizing strategy (or non-strategy) known as “muddling through.” Critics in Parliament and the press focused on failures including the continuing debacle at Gallipoli, the crushing defeat of Serbia (see below), the apparently pointless occupation of Salonika, and the controversy over conscription (which also contributed to growing tension in Ireland). 

But the main factor was undoubtedly the disaster at Loos, which resulted in around 60,000 British casualties, including 11,000 dead – a shocking total, considering 8,000 British soldiers had died in combat or from wounds sustained in combat during the entire Second Boer War from 1899-1902, while 5,000 died from these causes in the Crimean War (many more died from disease in these previous wars). The British public was horrified at the toll, especially as private accounts by officers and soldiers hinted that many of the casualties were unnecessary

Under growing pressure to reform and revitalize the war effort, the Cabinet decided to form a new War Committee to direct British strategy, replacing the previous Dardanelles Committee, which as its name indicated had focused on the Gallipoli operation. The negotiations over the composition of the War Committee soon became an occasion for a broader housecleaning, as strong-willed Cabinet members including Lloyd George and Law fixed their sights on Kitchener and French. 

Resenting Kitchener’s secrecy, indecision, and refusal to delegate authority, as early as October 21 a large majority agreed that the grand old man had to go – but there was an obvious political obstacle. The hero of Sudan (lionized as “Kitchener of Khartoum”) and a key architect of victory in the Second Boer War, the Secretary of War was a beloved authority figure whose visage, immortalized in famous recruiting posters saying “Your Country Needs YOU,” was a comforting source of continuity. How could they cashier the War Secretary without causing a loss of confidence in the rest of the Cabinet? 

Asquith tried to square the circle by persuading Kitchener to accept a position as commander of all British forces in the eastern Mediterranean and Asia, but Kitchener refused the offer. Seeking another stopgap solution, Asquith fudged: Kitchener kept his position to reassure public opinion, but agreed to give up most of his powers to the new War Committee formed on November 11 along with the new chief of the Imperial general staff, Sir William Robertson (replacing Sir Archibald Murray, who in turn became commander of British troops in Egypt). Though still Secretary of State for War in title, Kitchener only retained responsibility for recruiting and equipping the army. 

French was next to go. Though not an unqualified failure, his main achievements had come early in the war, when he saved the British Expeditionary Force during the Great Retreat and eventually (French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre would have said belatedly) advanced into the gap between the German First and Second Armies in the first week of September 1914, resulting in the key Allied victory remembered as the “Miracle on the Marne.” His determination also helped the BEF prevail in its desperate defense during the First Battle of Ypres. 

Since then, however, the BEF commander was increasingly known for his shortcomings, including unpredictable mood swings, gyrating between irrational optimism and near-defeatist pessimism; a tendency to blame both his superiors and underlings when things went badly; a bad relationship with Britain’s French allies dating back to the first days of the war; and a proclivity for meddling in politics, as when he took his case directly to the newspapers during the shell crisis. 

The final straw came in the aftermath of Loos, when French tried to cover up his responsibility for the defeat in the official dispatch by claiming he had agreed to commit reserves during the crucial first day of the battle, when in fact he had refused. On October 27, 1915, French’s own chief of staff, Robertson, told King George V that French was no longer fit to command and should be replaced by Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the First Army which carried out the attack at Loos. At the same time French appeared to be losing his nerve, according to Haig, who wrote in his diary: “He seemed tired of the war, and said that in his opinion we ought to take the first opportunity of concluding peace otherwise England would be ruined!” A cavalry commander struggling to comprehend trench warfare, French was simply out of his depth. 

Following French’s prevarication in the Loos dispatch, the king then took the unusual step of intervening personally. After receiving the bad news on December 4, on December 15, 1915, French resigned his post and was created Viscount of Ypres, an honorary title recognizing the scene of his greatest victory. He then assumed command of the Home Forces guarding the British Isles – a fig leaf to cover up the fact that he had basically been fired. 

His replacement, Haig (top), would command the BEF for the rest of the war and is closely associated with some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Dynamic, intelligent and aggressive, Haig replicated many of French’s faults, including over-optimism and meddling in politics. More importantly he was perceived as cold and analytical, and often criticized for appearing distant and uncaring; after the war many critics alleged that he was indifferent to casualties during the cataclysmic Battle of the Somme and later Passchendaele, bestowing the unflattering sobriquet “Butcher Haig” on him. 

However, more recently a number of historians have presented a more sympathetic portrait of Haig, noting that he had little choice about the Somme, as it was already agreed with Britain’s French allies before he took command. According to the same view Haig also had no real alternative to waging a war of attrition, although he enthusiastically embraced new weapons like tanks and airplanes which promised a way to break through enemy lines and end the slaughter. Indeed it’s not clear what other strategy Haig could have pursued, especially as the offensives he ordered were considered urgently necessary to relieve pressure on the French as their army neared the breaking point. 

Serbs Reach the Sea 

In the Balkans the Serbian “Great Retreat” continued with horrifying losses. In mid-December the decimated columns of soldiers and civilian refugees began arriving at their first destination, the Albanian coast, where they would wait for French and Italian ships to evacuate the survivors to the Greek island of Corfu, beyond the reach of the pursuing Central Powers. But there weren’t enough Allied ships to carry out the hastily arranged evacuation at first, and despite Allied deliveries of food and clothing thousands of Serbian soldiers and civilians starved or died of exposure during this period. 

Click to enlarge

One Serbian officer, Milorad Marković, recalled the final days of the retreat, as they descended from the Albanian mountains: 

I remember things scattered all around; horses and men stumbling and falling into the abyss; Albanian attacks; hosts of women and children. A doctor would not dress an officer’s wound; soldiers would not bother pull out a wounded comrade or officer. Belongings abandoned; starvation; wading across rivers clutching onto horses’ tails; old men, women and children climbing up the rocks; dying people on the road; a smashed human skull by the road; a corpse all skin and bones; robbed, stripped naked, mangled; soldiers, police officers, civilians, women, captives. Vlasta’s cousin, naked under his overcoat with a collar and cuffs, shattered, gone mad. Soldiers like ghosts, skinny, pale, worn out, sunken eyes, their hair and beards long, their clothes in rags, almost naked, barefoot. Ghosts of people begging for bread, walking with sticks, their feet covered in wounds, staggering. 

On December 15 the Serbs reached the sea, only to find themselves forced to continue south along the coast in search of their rescuers. After finding no food and no French ships at the first stop, Marković’s starving party pushes on: 

But we have to run further, to Ljesh. There’s the harbour! There we’ll have bread and rest. No bread there either, and the Germans are pursuing us. We must flee again. Further, too far for us, worn out, exhausted and half-dead – to Drach. We are not alive; we walk and move, sometimes eat or speak, but half-conscious. We left Ljesh six days ago… We wade across rivers. There, too, some perish, drown or freeze to death. Then we go over rocks, ravines; many fall there, too.

As terrible as conditions were for the Serbs, they were even worse for the Habsburg prisoners of war who had to follow their captors and received even less food or clothing. Unsurprisingly in their desperation many resorted to robbery, according to one POW, a Czech soldier named Josef Sramek, who wrote in his diary on December 9, 1915: 

Once every three days we get a few biscuits or a half of a loaf of bread… The captives pass through the country like robbers, attacking houses at night, stealing cattle, chicken, and corn. They risk their lives. Many are killed by Arnauts [Albanians]; many starve to death in valleys and swamps. These are not people anymore but animals who would murder their own friends for a piece of bread. 

Incredibly things were about to get even worse. On December 18 Sramek wrote that the column was held up at a river, waiting for Italian soldiers to ferry them to the other side:

Our situation is hopeless. The river is flooding, and ferrying is impossible. Today 60 died from exhaustion. Rags hanging from everyone, barefoot with frostbitten legs, unshaven, unwashed, all the suffering of the way mirroring in our faces. You have no certitude – at night someone steals your brotsack [bread sack] from under your head, your blanket, your coat – anything you may have. Those who cannot rise up have their coats and boots stolen from them for resale.

The body count rose quickly. On December 20, Sramek noted: “More than 200 dead were collected today.” A day later, he noted: “In the morning 300 dead lay on the riverbank.” Finally on December 22 the ferry service resumed: “There is a ferry today, but only for the sick! Indescribable scenes take place at the raft. People rush like mad, push each other, fight. Serbians beat them with sticks and gun butts. Many people are beaten and kicked to death, then thrown into the river. Everyone is trying to save himself from death by hunger.”

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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