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.

New Jersey's Anthony Bourdain Food Trail Has Opened

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Before Anthony Bourdain was a world-famous chef, author, or food and travel documentarian, he was just another kid growing up in New Jersey. Earlier this year, Food & Wine reported that Bourdain's home state would honor the late television personality with a food trail tracing his favorite restaurants. And that trail is now open.

Bourdain was born in New York City in 1956, and spent most of childhood living in Leonia, New Jersey. He often revisited the Garden State in his books and television shows, highlighting the state's classic diners and delis and the seafood shacks of the Jersey shore.

Immediately following Bourdain's tragic death on June 8, 2018, New Jersey assemblyman Paul Moriarty proposed an official food trail featuring some of his favorite eateries. The trail draws from the New Jersey episode from season 5 of the CNN series Parts Unknown. In it, Bourdain traveled to several towns throughout the state, including Camden, Atlantic City, and Asbury Park, and sampled fare like cheesesteaks, salt water taffy, oysters, and deep-fried hot dogs.

The food trail was approved following a unanimous vote in January, and the trail was officially inaugurated last week. Among the stops included on the trail:

  1. Frank's Deli // Asbury Park
  1. Knife and Fork Inn // Atlantic City
  1. Dock's Oyster House // Atlantic City
  1. Tony's Baltimore Grill // Atlantic City
  1. James' Salt Water Taffy // Atlantic City
  1. Lucille's Country Cooking // Barnegat
  1. Tony & Ruth Steaks // Camden
  1. Donkey's Place // Camden
  2. Hiram's Roadstand // Fort Lee

10 Sweet Facts About Napoleon Dynamite

© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox
© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

ChapStick, llamas, and tater tots are just a few things that appear in Napoleon Dynamite, a cult film shot for a mere $400,000 that went on to gross $44.5 million. In 2002, Brigham Young University film student Jared Hess filmed a black-and-white short, Peluca, with his classmate Jon Heder. The film got accepted into the Slamdance Film Festival, which gave Hess the courage to adapt it into a feature. Hess used his real-life upbringing in Preston, Idaho—he had six brothers and his mom owned llamas—to form the basis of the movie, about a nerdy teenager named Napoleon (Heder) who encourages his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) to run for class president.

In 2004, the indie film screened at Sundance, and was quickly purchased by Fox Searchlight and Paramount, then released less than six months later. Today, the film remains so popular that in 2016 Pedro and Napoleon reunited for a cheesy tots Burger King commercial. To celebrated the film's 15th anniversary, here are some facts about the ever-quotable comedy.

1. Deb is based on Jerusha Hess.

Jared Hess’s wife Jerusha co-wrote the film and based Deb on her own life. “Her mom made her a dress when she was going to a middle school dance and she said, ‘I hadn’t really developed yet, so my mom overcompensated and made some very large, fluffy shoulders,’” Jared told Rolling Stone. “Some guy dancing with her patted the sleeves and actually said, ‘I like your sleeves … they’re real big.'"

Tina Majorino, who played the fictional Deb, hadn’t done a comedy before, because people thought of her as a dramatic actress. "The fact that Jared would even let me come in and read really appealed to me," she told Rolling Stone. "Even if I didn’t get the role, I just wanted to see what it was like to audition for a comedy, as I’d never done it before."

2. Napoleon's famous dance scene was the result of having extra film stock.

At the end of shooting Peluca, Hess had a minute of film stock left and knew Heder liked to dance. Heder had on moon boots—something Hess used to wear—so they traveled to the end of a dirt road. They turned on the car radio and Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” was playing. “I just told him to start dancing and realized: This is how we’ve got to end the film,” Hess told Rolling Stone. “You don’t anticipate those kinds of things. They’re just part of the creative process.”

Heder told HuffPost he found inspiration in Michael Jackson and dancing in front of a mirror, for the end-of-the-movie skit. But when it came time to film the dance for the feature, Heder felt "pressure" to deliver. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’ This isn’t just a silly little scene,” he told PDX Monthly. “This is the moment where everything comes, and he’s making the sacrifice for his friend. That’s the whole theme of the movie. Everything leads up to this. Napoleon’s been this loser. This has to be the moment where he lands a victory.” Instead of hiring a choreographer, the filmmakers told him to “just figure it out.” They filmed the scene three times with three different songs, including Jamiroquai’s “Little L” and “Canned Heat.”

3. Napoleon Dynamitefans still flock to Preston, Idaho to tour the movie's locations.

In a 2016 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, The Preston Citizen’s circulation manager, Rhonda Gregerson, said “every summer at least 50 groups of fans walk into the office wanting to know more about the film.” She said people come from all over the world to see Preston High School, Pedro’s house, and other filming locations as a layover before heading to Yellowstone National Park. “If you talk to a lot of people in Preston, you’ll find a lot of people who have become a bit sick of it,” Gregerson said. “I still think it’s great that there’s still so much interest in the town this long after the movie.”

Besides the filming locations, the town used to host a Napoleon Dynamite festival. In 2005, the fest drew about 6000 people and featured a tater tot eating contest, a moon boot dancing contest, boondoggle keychains for sale, and a tetherball tournament. The fest was last held in 2008.

4. Idaho adopted a resolution commending the filmmakers.

'Napoleon Dynamite' filmmakers Jerusha and Jared Hess
Jerusha and Jared Hess
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

In 2005, the Idaho legislature wrote a resolution praising Jared and Jerusha Hess and the city of Preston. HCR029 appreciates the use of tater tots for “promoting Idaho’s most famous export.” It extols bicycling and skateboarding to promote “better air quality,” and it says Kip and LaFawnduh’s relationship “is a tribute to e-commerce and Idaho’s technology-driven industry.” The resolution goes on to say those who “vote Nay on this concurrent resolution are Freakin’ Idiots.” Napoleon would be proud.

5. Napoleon was a different kind of nerd.

Sure, he was awkward, but Napoleon wasn’t as intelligent as other film nerds. “He’s not a genius,” Heder told HuffPost. “Maybe he’s getting good grades, but he’s not excelling; he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t know how much of an outcast he is, and that’s what gives him that confidence. He’s trying to be cool sometimes, but mostly he just goes for it and does it.”

6. The title sequence featured several different sets of hands..

Eight months before the theatrical release, Fox Searchlight had Hess film a title sequence that made it clear that the film took place in 2004, not in the ’80s or ’90s. Napoleon’s student ID reveals the events occur during the 2004-2005 school year. Heder’s hands move the objects in and out of the frame, but Fox didn’t like his hangnails. “They flew out a hand model a couple weeks later, who had great hands, but was five or six shades darker than Jon Heder,” Hess told Art of the Title. “If you look, there are like three different dudes’ hands—our producer’s are in there, too.”

7. Napoleon Dynamite messed up Netflix's algorithms.

Beginning in 2006, Cinematch—Netflix’s recommendation algorithm software—held a contest called The Netflix Prize. Anyone who could make Cinematch’s predictions at least 10 percent more accurate would win $1 million. Computer scientist Len Bertoni had trouble predicting whether people would like Napoleon Dynamite. Bertoni told The New York Times the film is “polarizing,” and the Netflix ratings are either one or five stars. If he could accurately predict whether people liked the movie, Bertoni said, then he’d come much closer to winning the prize. That didn’t happen for him.

The contest finally ended in 2009 when Netflix awarded the grand prize to BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, who developed a 10.06 percent improvement over Cinematch’s score.

8. Napoleon accidentally got a bad perm.


© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

Heder got his hair permed the night before shooting began—but something went wrong. Heder called Jared and said, “‘Yeah, I got the perm but it’s a little bit different than it was before,’” Hess told Rolling Stone. “He showed up the night before shooting and he looked like Shirley Temple! The curls were huge!” They didn’t have much time to fix the goof, so Hess enlisted Jerusha and her cousin to re-perm it. It worked, but Jon wasn’t allowed to wash his hair for the next three weeks. “So he had this stinky ‘do in the Idaho heat for three weeks,” Jared said. “We were shooting near dairy farms and there were tons of flies; they were all flying in and out of his hair.”

9. LaFawnduh's real-life family starred in the film.

Shondrella Avery played LaFawnduh, the African American girlfriend of Kip, Napoleon’s older brother (played by Aaron Ruell). Before filming, Hess phoned Avery and said, “‘You remember that there were no black people in Preston, Idaho, right? Do you think your family might want to be in the movie?’ And that’s how it happened,” Avery told Los Angeles Weekly. Her actual family shows up at the end when LaFawnduh and Kip get married.

10. A short-lived animated series acted as a sequel.

In 2012, Fox aired six episodes of Napoleon Dynamite the animated series before they canceled it. All of the original actors returned to supply voices to their characters. The only difference between the film and the series is Kip is not married. Heder told Rolling Stone the episodes are as close to a sequel as fans will get. “If you sit down and watch those back to back, you’ve got yourself a sequel,” he said. “Because you’ve got all the same characters and all the same actors.”

This story has been updated for 2019.

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