The Struggle for Douaumont

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 227th installment in the series.   

March 2-4, 1916: The Struggle for Douaumont 

As March 1916 began one word was on the lips of people across Europe, on both sides of the battle lines: Verdun. The German onslaught against the fortress city was clearly the greatest offensive since the beginning of the war, fated to be one of the bloodiest battles in history. On March 2 Mildred Aldrich, an American woman living in a small village outside Paris, described the feeling in a letter to a friend: 

We are living these days in the atmosphere of the great battle of Verdun. We talk Verdun all day, dream Verdun all night--in fact, the thought of that great attack in the east absorbs every other idea. Not in the days of the Marne, nor in the trying days of Ypres or the Aisne was the tension so terrible as it is now. No one believes that Verdun can be taken, but the anxiety is dreadful, and the idea of what the defence is costing is never absent from the minds even of those who are firmly convinced of what the end must be. 

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On the other side Evelyn, Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living Berlin, recorded German impressions in her diary on March 5, 1916, showing how propaganda could present the same events from diametrically opposed perspectives: 

Verdun is the chief subject of interest at present, and in Germany it is now looked upon as likely to be one of the decisive victories of the war. They say it is only a matter of a few days before the whole fortress is taken, and that the terrific losses among the French fill even them with horror. Whereas on the other hand one reads in the English papers “that the Verdun attack has been a failure.” 

In fact it was only beginning. As February drew to a close the fighting continued with shocking violence, as German infantry led by small units of elite “storm troopers” pressed forward in the face of determined French resistance, while thousands of artillery pieces fought a thundering duel overhead. On February 26 one German officer, fighting in the vicinity of the Caures Woods where two battalions of “chasseurs a pied” under Colonel Emile Driant made their last stand, painted a picture of terrible conditions, both manmade and natural, in his diary:

On the edge of the Caures Wald the first French positions. Here it was possible to see the wonders of war. Our artillery had caused craters 10m wide and 6m deep. The dead lay all around, including a young Leutnant with his whole group… It is a picture of sorrow that I will never forget. In the French 2nd line a machine gun had operated until the last moment. This murderous weapon had made the advance of our 87 (I.R.) [infantry regiment] very difficult. It was freezing in the tents tonight; I did not sleep a single minute. 

The same day, a French soldier fighting near Fort Douaumont, a key stronghold lost to the Germans the day before, described the confusion prevailing amidst hellish scenes on the battlefield, as the German infantry pressed forward despite huge losses: 

The guns are firing at 200 and 300 yards, and shrapnel is exploding with a crash, scything them down. Our men hold their ground; our machine guns keep to their work, and yet they advance… At a given moment the Boches are quite close to us. Despite the noise of the guns one can hear their oaths and their shouts as they strike… Everything is on fire – the wood near by, the village of Douaumont, Verdun, the front of Bezonvaux, and the back of Thiaumont. There is fire everywhere. The acrid smell of carbonic acid and blood catches at our throats, but the battle goes on. 

By the end of February the French Second and Tenth Armies had arrived to reinforce the exhausted defenders, and the German offensive seemed to be losing its initial momentum, as the attackers now faced the difficulty of moving the huge heavy artillery pieces (some – the 420-millimeter “Big Berthas” – weighing 47 tons) forward over primitive roads turned to expanses of mud by the melting snow. 

Aided by the turn in the weather, the new French commander at Verdun, General Philippe Petain, managed to stabilize the front temporarily, while organizing the non-stop convoy of 3,500 trucks, which in the next week alone would deliver 190,000 troops and 25,000 tons of supplies along the last open road connecting Verdun to the outside world, later known as the “Voie Sacree” or “Sacred Way” (below). By June 1916 the number of vehicles making the endless round trip between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc to the south would rise to 12,000, tended by an army of mechanics and road engineers. 

But the commander of the German Fifth Army, the German Crown Prince Wilhelm, was determined to prevail. Thus in many places German troops ended up desperately hanging on to hard-won positions even when they were exposed to French artillery fire (especially from hills on the western bank of the Meuse, still in French hands), resulting in almost as many casualties among the attackers as the defenders. 

This marked the emergence of a fatal dynamic that would ultimately undermine chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn’s plan for a battle of attrition, which had envisioned German troops making a series of incremental, conservative gains and then holding strong defensive positions against French counterattacks. Unfortunately, Falkenhayn apparently never conveyed this nuance to Crown Prince Wilhelm, who believed he was simply responsible for capturing Verdun, whatever the price. 

The price was steep both in terms of casualties and morale. Another German officer described seemingly interminable French shelling near the village of Vacherauville (not to be confused with the fort of the same name, on the opposite bank of the River Meuse) on the night of February 28-29, 1916: 

Had a night like never before. As I had left my coat behind when I had gone out on patrol, and my batman had not come forward with me, I had to spend the night in the trench with just a blanket. I had to squat the whole night, could not go out as we were under constant artillery fire. So, along with the uncomfortable position and the freezing cold, we had to accept the fact that each of the incoming shells could have our name on it. The mud was flung into our trench and faces; the trench itself was not deep enough as it had been hastily dug. How long this night was for us it is easy to imagine. Thank God for the dawn and keeping us alive during the night. 

However the situation hardly improved during the day on February 29, according to the same account, which illustrates how gruesome events became part of everyday life on the battlefield: 

Unfortunately we suffered losses today, a number of brave soldiers wounded and to our great dismay our Battalion Commander was critically wounded, losing both legs and having shell splinters in his throat and head. Unfortunately there was no Doctor or stretcher bearers available. A man with First Aid knowledge announced that it was no use bandaging the wounds. Hauptmann Raffloer was fully conscious and requested that he simply be carried to the rear. He was carried through the ravine and over the dangerous height in a Shelter half. We are totally cut off, by day we can not move at all, and by night just at the risk of our lives. A few hours later the Hauptmann was dead. A dapper and brave soldier. 

In the first four days of March the fiercest fighting was concentrated on the village of Douaumont, which lay at the foot of the recently captured fort of the same name (below, Fort Douaumont at the end of the war) and now became the site of a bitter contest that literally wiped the little settlement off the face of the earth, with nothing left to mark it but a stretch of pulverized stone (top, the outskirts of Douaumont in 1917). 

The struggle for Douaumont village saw the Germans mount three furious assaults over the course of a week, only to find themselves targeted by last-ditch French machine gun crews, carefully concealed in the ruins of the village and prepared to fight until they were wiped out. As the village traded hands again and again, German machine guns firing from Fort Douaumont were joined by the massive “Big Berthas,” which attempted to deal with the French suicide squads in the village by simply removing whatever remained of the village, one earthshaking blow at a time. 

Meanwhile fresh French troops hurried into Douaumont village under cover of night, under Petain’s new deployment system, which rotated units through the Verdun slaughterhouse for a few weeks at a time, in an attempt to spread the losses out as much as possible (by contrast, Falkenhayn held back reserves from the German Fifth Army, forcing German divisions to remain in the front line much longer, suffering higher proportional casualty rates as a result).

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But the overwhelming German advantage in artillery firepower left little doubt what the final outcome would be. On March 4 units from the German 5th and 25th Divisions completed the bloody mopping up of the last remaining French defenders – capturing one wounded young officer, Captain Charles de Gaulle, who would spend the next 32 months in a German prisoner of war camp, then later gain fame during the Second World War as the leader of the Free French Forces.

Elsewhere at Verdun German troops were finding ways to minimize their exposure to French artillery fire, which was also making it increasingly difficult to bring up supplies. At the same time, both sides were carrying out patrols to test the weakness of their foes’ improvised defenses. On March 4 the same anonymous German officer described the situation near Vacherauville in his diary: 

Last night heavy artillery fire… Unfortunately the Company got nothing [to eat]. The company prolonged the battalion trench, tonight as much of it as possible will be manned. A screen was set up to hide our rear area from the Frenchmen. Had shooting bays dug in the trench walls, the men standing in them would be better protected from the artillery and passage through the trench would be easier. A French patrol had managed to slip between our Schützenschleier (Forward posts) and the trench. When challenged, a Frenchman answered in broken German. An Unteroffizier called out to them in French, they should surrender or we fire. They did not respond and disappeared in the night. 

French artillery located on the western bank of the Meuse was now inflicting unacceptable casualties on the flank of the German Fifth Army, helping bring German casualties to over 25,000 by the end of February. Meeting with Falkenhayn, Crown Prince Wilhelm and his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, demanded a new offensive to clear the French from the western bank of the Meuse, in order to permit the main German offensive to go forward. Falkenhayn, mindful of Germany’s manpower limitations, nevertheless reluctantly agreed; the attack on the western bank, vastly expanding the scope of the battle, was scheduled for March 6, 1916. 

Germans Resume Unrestricted U-boat Wafare

At the end of February 1916 the German navy resumed the U-boat campaign against merchant shipping in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, in a fresh attempt to bring Britain to its knees by cutting it off from outside supplies, especially munitions manufactured in the United States. However this once again risked an open breach with the world’s largest neutral power, something Germany could scarcely afford. 

The first unrestricted U-boat campaign had lasted from February to September 1915, when Kaiser Wilhelm II canceled it in the face of intense diplomatic pressure from the U.S., following the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. However the flood of American-made supplies to Britain and France only grew, increasingly paid for with loans from American banks. 

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In her diary Evelyn, Princess Blucher, recorded growing anxiety and anger among the Germans over this (unofficial) U.S. support for the Allies:  “‘If America keeps on,’ the Germans say (some of them, of course), ‘we’re done for. America is actually keeping things going. If America will stop providing the Allies with munitions, we can still win.’” 

Under pressure from Falkenhayn and Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the champion of the German navy, in February 1916 the Kaiser consented to the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare, allowing German submarines to sink armed merchantmen in the war zone around the British Isles without warning. 

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Predictably, the announcement was greeted with consternation in the U.S., where President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of State Robert Lansing insisted on the right of Americans to travel on merchant ships, even if the vessels were carrying defensive weapons and therefore technically warships.

Far from bowing to American demands to withdraw the order, on March 4 the Kaiser secretly expanded the targeting criteria to include any merchant ships in the war zone, and any armed merchant ships outside the war zone. However, he still insisted that enemy passenger ships not be targeted, precipitating a final falling-out with Tirpitz, who objected that it was too difficult for U-boat commanders to distinguish the different kinds of ships, adding that passenger ships could in any event also carry weapons. On March 12, 1916 Tirpitz submitted his resignation yet again – and this time it was accepted. 

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Meanwhile ordinary soldiers and merchant sailors boarding ship for Britain or France put their faith in their captains and the Royal Navy, which deployed scores of destroyers to scour the sea lanes, and was now developing a new weapon, the depth charge, to strike at German submarines below the surface. On December 3, 1915 A Canadian lieutenant, Clifford Almon Wells, described the precautionary measures taken aboard the transport Lapland as it crossed the Atlantic: 

To-day we are fairly in the danger zone. Our company’s machine gun is mounted aft, while other guns are mounted forward. The decks are lined with men armed rifles… To-night every man must sleep on deck by the life-boat or raft to which he has been assigned. All portholes are darkened at night and every precaution is taken to render the ship invisible.

Of course submarines were just one threat posed by the crossing, which also exposed them to the fury of the elements. Another Canadian, Billy Gray, recalled sailing through a North Atlantic storm in a letter home: 

It started in Wednesday night and blew a regular gale head on, for thirty-six hours. There is no use in my trying to describe it for I can’t. Suffice it to say she was a real storm. My clothes are not dry yet, being soaked through and through. Everyone was seasick, and if I could describe the indescribable horror of men crowded together as they were in those days, I know you wouldn’t believe me. Oh! it was horrible. Sick by hundreds lying around anywhere gasping for air. Some slept on the decks in a drenched condition, spray sweeping over them… The stench below was something to remember… One man of the crew was killed, washed off the ladder leading to the crow’s nest into the forward winches. Broken neck. He was buried this a.m. 

But as elsewhere, horror could alternate with beauty in strange and unexpected ways. A few days later the changeable sea presented a very different scene to Gray: 

Just at present we are cleaving our way into a road of silver, for the moon is shining directly over our bows, and it is a wonderful sight apparently moving up a shimmering carpet… A carpet of silver and grey lace, like one of those red and black ones from the sidewalk to a church door at weddings, dancing ahead and only the lap, lap, lap of the waters as one stands on the fo’castle.

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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