Russians Attack At Lake Naroch

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 229th installment in the series.  

March 18, 1916: Russians Attack At Lake Naroch 

With France fighting for its life at Verdun, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre pleaded with his country’s Allies to immediately launch their own offensives against the Central Powers, in hopes of forcing Germany to shift troops from Verdun and take some of the pressure off France. The result was a series of attacks against Germany and Austria-Hungary, mounted with little hope of success in an effort to demonstrate solidarity. 

Following the total failure of the Italian attack on Austria-Hungary at the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo, the next big Allied push was the Russian offensive against Germany on the Eastern Front at Lake Naroch, from March 18-30, 1916, where General Kuropatkin’s Northern Army Group attacked a thinly-held part of the German front. Despite a huge advantage in manpower (350,000 to 75,000) and artillery (1,000 guns to 400), the attack by the Russian Second Army under General Smirnov on the German Tenth Army under General Eichhorn ended in defeat, as well-entrenched German defenders in multiple lines of trenches repelled the human-wave style assaults of the Russian infantry. However, the fact that the Russians could mount an attack at all was a warning that the Central Powers ignored to their detriment. 

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Indeed, the Russian preparations for an attack at Lake Naroch came as something of a surprise to German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who complacently assumed that Russia was basically out of the war following serial defeats at the hands of the Central Powers in their 1915 summer campaign on the Eastern Front. While Russia was in fact under increasing internal stress (like most of the other combatants), it was far from finished. 

By the same token, Russia’s backwards infrastructure and the Russian Army’s lamentable logistics meant the Germans had plenty of time to prepare their defenses around Lake Naroch and its environs, now located in modern-day Belarus and Lithuania; they were aided by aerial reconnaissance which revealed huge – but slow – Russian troop movements. Malcolm Grow, an American surgeon volunteering with the Russian Army, recalled the columns of Russian infantry arriving in the weeks leading up to the new offensive:

For miles they stretched across the frozen landscape. The roads were like huge brown arteries through which flowed slowly moving columns of men, artillery and transports, ebbing on endlessly to replace our corps – a constant stream of gray-brown…Huge 9-inch and 6-inch guns came lumbering through the village. The roads had not yet begun to thaw and they were easy to move. Endless columns of caissons loaded with shells rattled back and forth bringing up shells…

The offensive would take place in swampy terrain amid frequent freezing, thawing, and re-freezing, which made it very difficult to dig trenches deep enough to offer protection. Grow described the shallow trenches and general lack of good cover against German artillery: 

The trenches were again at the edge of a great forest, facing across a flat open field, across which was another great forest of pines… The trenches were dug in only about two feet. There was a thick covering of ice on the bottom. To make up for their lack of depth, they had been built up in front with banks of dirt and sod. On account of the swampy character of the ground, very few dug-outs had been constructed and not one fit for use was at our disposal. We had to work in tents covered with pine boughs to hide them from observation… The only protection we had from the German artillery were the tree trunks.

On March 16, 1916 the Russian Second Army launched a huge two-day bombardment, with an intensity unprecedented for Russian forces in the First World War, but German dominance in the air meant that much of the artillery fire was inaccurate, due to a lack of aerial reconnaissance. Furthermore the combination of mist and smoke from the artillery shelling made it even harder for Russian spotters to identify targets and assess damage. Grow remarked on the low visibility:

I went down into our first-line trenches, which were half filled with icy snow and muddy water, coming up almost to my knees, and peered out through a loophole toward the German trenches. The black line of forest along which his first line ran was almost hidden by spurting clouds of smoke and dirt. A gray haze simply hid them from view where the high explosive shells tore up barbed wire and trench parapets. 

On March 18 the Russians unleashed the first of many human wave attacks aiming to overwhelm the outnumbered German defenders through relentless assaults, but paid a steep price when it was discovered most of the German machine guns were still in action. Their task was made even more difficult by the melting snow and ice, which turned the wide, flat fields into a muddy morass, pockmarked by shell holes filled with water. Finally, even when the Russians managed to break through in places, they faced a second and third line of German trenches, still mostly intact. Grow described the fate of the first wave: 

They were hardly over the top when the German machine-guns turned a withering fire on them, the machine-guns hammering and the rifles cracking. Across the flat, white field they went, and every here and there a man would go down sprawling in the snow. The German barrage fire appeared as a haze of whirling smoke and dirt, partly hiding them as they went through it, and the earth shook with the violence of the explosions. The sprawling forms were like the foam that a receding wave leaves on the sand as it sweeps back to its parent sea. Many came running or crawling back with all manner of wounds, as the advancing line became lost to sight in the tumbling, rolling fog of the barrage; but No Man’s Land was covered with men who would never move again. 

The Russian female soldier Yashka (real name Maria Leontievna Bochkareva) painted a similar picture of the Russian infantry attacks:

The signal to advance was given, and we started, knee-deep in mud, for the enemy. In places the pools reached above our waists. Shells and bullets played havoc among us. Of those who fell wounded, many sank in the mud and were drowned. The German fire was devastating. Our lines grew thinner and thinner, and progress became so slow that our doom was certain in the event of a further advance. 

After multiple human wave attacks, the Russians finally broke through in some places, advancing up to ten kilometers – but were eventually forced to withdraw or face encirclement. Yashka described the retreat, followed by the dangerous work of retrieving wounded from the battlefield:

How can one describe the march back through the inferno of No Man’s Land on that night of March 7th, [N.S., March 19th] 1916? There were wounded men submerged all but their heads, calling piteously for help. “Save me, for Christ’s sake!” came from every side. From the trenches there went up a chorus of the same heartrending appeals… Fifty of us went out to do the work of rescue. Never before had I worked in such harrowing, blood-curdling circumstances… Several sank so deep that my own strength was not sufficient to drag them out… Finally I broke down, just as I reached my trench with a burden. I was so exhausted that all my bones were aching. 

By March 30, 1916, the swampy conditions, lack of ammunition and exhaustion of the Russian troops left little choice, and Smirnov’s superior General Evert called the offensive off; a coordinated attack near the Baltic Sea port of Riga also failed. The price was enormous but no longer shocking by the standards of the First World War: across all the offensives in this region they suffered around 110,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing and prisoners) including at least 12,000 from frostbite. Meanwhile the Germans lost “just” 20,000 men. Yashka remembered the stomach-churning aftermath of the battle: 

Our casualties were enormous. The corpses lay thick everywhere, like mushrooms after rain, and there were innumerable wounded. One could not take a step in No Man’s Land without coming into contact with the corpse of a Russian or a German. Bloody feet, hands, sometimes heads, lay scattered in the mud… It was a night of unforgettable horrors. The stench was suffocating. The ground was full of mud-holes. Some of us sat on corpses. Others rested their feet on dead men. One could not stretch a hand without touching a lifeless body. We were hungry. We were cold. Our flesh crept in the dreadful surroundings. I wanted to get up. My hand sought support. It fell on the face of a corpse, stuck against the wall. I screamed, slipped and fell. My fingers buried themselves in the torn abdomen of a body.

Afterwards she described the preparations to bury the bodies in mass graves: “Our own Regiment had two thousand wounded. And when the dead were gathered from the field and carried out of the trenches, there were long, long, rows of them stretched out in the sun awaiting eternal rest in the immense common grave that was being dug for them in the rear.” For his part, Grow got some idea of the losses in conversation with a Russian officer, who told him: “Of my company of two hundred men, only forty got back uninjured…” Later, Grow noted: “One regiment which had had four thousand men only a few hours before now had only about eight hundred!” 

The fate of wounded Russian soldiers was hardly much better, Grow added, as paltry medical facilities were quickly overwhelmed by huge numbers of casualties: “The cold was intense, and as our tent could not accommodate all the wounded, many had to lie in the snow wrapped in such poor blankets as we could supply. At times there were as many as a hundred lying in the snow outside the tent, many of them having only their wet overcoats to protect them against the cold!” 

The failure of the Lake Naroch Offensive encouraged the Germans to resume their former complacency, concluding that Russia had finally exhausted itself. In fact, the giant realm still had huge untapped reserves of manpower, and industrial production of war-related goods was expanding quickly. Perhaps most importantly, the Russian Army was experimenting with new offensive tactics, led by the brilliant battlefield strategist Alexei Brusilov.

See the previous installment or all entries.

These Breaking Bad K-Swiss Sneakers Are Heisenberg-Approved

K-Swiss
K-Swiss

On the heels of last week's Netflix release of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, fans of Breaking Bad have another treat on tap. Sneaker brand K-Swiss just announced a special edition sneaker modeled after the now-iconic RV camper where unlikely drug kingpin Walter White and his sidekick Jesse Pinkman cooked batches of the finest methamphetamine New Mexico had ever seen.

A K-Swiss Classic 2000 x 'Breaking Bad' Recreational Vehicle sneaker is pictured
K-Swiss

The Classic 2000 x Breaking Bad Recreational Vehicle sneakers sport the same distinctive striped pattern as the camper and feature the show’s logo on the tongue. Inside is a lining that resembles the upholstery of the camper’s interior. The shoebox even has a few bullet holes to mimic the ones on the camper’s door.

Unlike Walt's meth, the sneakers are available only in limited quantities. K-Swiss plans on launching the shoe beginning at 6 p.m. PST on Thursday, October 17, at a pop-up store at 7100 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, California. (The “store” is actually the screen-used RV from the series, and fans are welcome to stop by to take pictures with it.) The company will release 50 pairs at the pop-up, with another 250 through K-Swiss.com and through Greenhouse, a designer and collectible shoe app from Foot Locker.

The shoes retail for $80, but unless you’re one of the lucky few able to grab a pair through the routes above, you’ll probably have to consider a marked-up eBay sale. As Walter White well knows, quality comes at a heavy price.

10 Gruesome Facts About Dawn of the Dead

Anchor Bay Entertainment
Anchor Bay Entertainment

In the late 1960s, George A. Romero changed horror cinema forever with Night of the Living Dead, an instant classic that defined zombie storytelling on the big and small screens for decades to come. Over the next decade, Romero—who was reluctant to revisit the creepy world of shambling corpses he’d brought to life—tried other things. But then a chance encounter with a shopping mall and a little help from a fellow horror master changed his mind. The result was Dawn of the Dead, an over-the-top horror comic book for the big screen that remains, for many fans, the greatest zombie film ever made.

It’s been more than 40 years since Dawn of the Dead first arrived in theaters, and the film remains a wickedly fun piece of horror satire full of exploding heads, mischievous bikers, and one very dangerous helicopter. In celebration of four decades of terror at the mall, here are 10 facts about the making of Dawn of the Dead.

1. We can thank the mall (and Dario Argento) for Dawn of the Dead.

When Night of the Living Dead became a massive hit after its release in 1968, Romero began fielding various offers to potentially revisit the world of ghouls that he had created. Romero, who’d made a living making TV commercials in Pittsburgh before Night of the Living Dead was made, was "paranoid" about the idea of returning for a second film, and left it alone for years until an idea unexpectedly came to him.

As Romero explained on Anchor Bay’s Dawn of the Dead commentary track, the idea for the film initially came to him when he touring Pennsylvania's Monroeville Mall, which was owned by some friends of his. During the tour, he was shown some crawlspace within the mall where various supplies were stored, and started thinking about what might happen if people holed up in the mall to try and ride out a zombie apocalypse.

The second big ingredient that led to Dawn of the Dead was Dario Argento, the acclaimed Italian director best known for Suspiria and Deep Red. Argento offered to help Romero get financing for a Night of the Dead sequel, and even invited him to Rome to work on the script.

“They got us a little apartment, I sat in Rome and banged this out,” Romero said.

2. George A. Romero came up with the most famous line while drinking.

A photograph of George A. Romero
Vittorio Zunino Celotto, Getty Images

The most famous line in Dawn of the Dead—a line so famous it became the movie's tagline and was later reused in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake—belongs to the character of Peter: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” As catchy and unforgettable as it is, Romero doesn’t recall any grand moment of inspiration. He was just drunk one night, trying to get the script finished.

“I just made that up. Truly. On a drunken night when I was really crashing to finish the script and I thought that was kind of nice. It was from something Dario Argento told me,” Romero told Rolling Stone in 1978. “My family is Cuban and Dario said, ‘Well you have a Caribbean background and that’s why you’re into the zombie thing; zombies originated in Haiti.’ I said, well, all right, and I just figured that’s something a voodoo priest might say. Whee! I’m just having fun, man.”

3. Multiple versions of Dawn of the Dead exist.

Argento helped Romero find financing for Dawn of the Dead and served as a “script consultant” on the film. In exchange, Argento retained the right to recut the film for various foreign markets, while Romero retained final cut for North and South America. As a result, the Italian version of the film was shorter than Romero’s U.S. version, as Argento trimmed certain jokes he felt Italian audiences wouldn’t get. This increased the darkness of the film, which led to certain content cuts in other foreign markets. This is why several different cuts of the film wound up existing around the world, including an R-rated re-release that was re-cut for drive-in theaters in 1982.

4. Dawn of the Dead was released unrated in America.

Dawn of the Dead was released first in international markets, arriving in Italian theaters in the fall of 1978, months before it would land in the United States. In just a few weeks, the film was a commercial success overseas without ever playing to American audiences. So, when Romero and company ran into MPAA demands that they cut the film down or get an X rating, they doubled down and released the film unrated without any cuts to the gore.

5. The zombies didn’t get a lot of direction.

Though he’s renowned among horror fans as the man responsible for building zombies into one of the most effective movie monsters, Romero didn’t spend too much time guiding his undead ghouls. The director felt that if he tried to offer detailed direction in terms of zombie behavior, the zombies would all start acting one way instead of like a group of individuals. So, direction was kept to a minimum.

“You just have to say, ‘Be dead,’” he later recalled.

6. Yes, it was filmed in a working mall.

The Monroeville Mall was not a Romero invention. It was a real, working shopper’s paradise, owned by friends of his, which meant that it wasn’t just going to be shut down for weeks at a time so a zombie movie crew could come in and wreck it. Though Romero and his wife Chris later recalled having to stay out of the mall while the Christmas decorations were up (which is when scenes set elsewhere were shot), once the crew did get into the mall they could only shoot at night.

To make that easier, the crew replaced many of the lights in the mall with color-corrected lighting, so they could essentially shoot wherever they chose. At 7 a.m. each morning the mall’s Muzak would automatically start playing, which meant shooting was done for the day, and the cast and crew could shamble home for a little rest. (The Monroeville Mall, which is located about 10 miles from Pittsburgh, is still in operation today.)

7. Many of Dawn of the Dead's gore effects were improvised.

Though he would eventually become known as one of horror’s great gore wizards, at the time of Dawn of the Dead Tom Savini’s career as a special effects artist was still quite young. As he recalled later, he was doing a play in North Carolina when Romero called him and said: “We got another gig. Think of ways to kill people.”

Savini later recalled that he was given a great deal of freedom to play with different ideas for the many, many gore effects in Dawn of the Dead, so much so that many of the most memorable effects were made up on the day of shooting, including the scene in which a zombie takes a screwdriver through the ear and the exploding head during the SWAT raid on the housing project near the beginning of the film. Savini’s knack for improvisation also served him well in another capacity: The character of Blades the biker, which Savini plays, was not in the original script. He was simply added during shooting.

“George let us go play,” Savini recalled.

8. Dawn of the Dead is packed with cameos.

Like many of Romero’s films, Dawn of the Dead’s production was based in his native Pittsburgh, which meant that getting people to be in the movie was often as simple as contacting friends and family and inviting them to appear on camera. Romero makes a cameo in the film himself, alongside his future wife and producer Chris, in the film’s opening sequence at the TV station, where the couple is sitting side by side at a control panel (Romero, Savini noted on the commentary track, is also wearing his “lucky scarf”). Other cameos scattered throughout the film include Chris Romero’s brother Cliff Forrest as the man who leans over a sleeping Francine in the opening shot, and Tom Savini’s niece and nephew as the two zombie children who burst out of a closet at the landing strip and attack Peter.

9. The bikers were not actors.

As with some of the smaller speaking roles, getting extras to show up in Dawn of the Dead was often a matter of simply asking around Pittsburgh for the right people. As a result, the National Guardsmen present in the film, as well as some of the police officers, were real National Guardsmen and real cops.

For the legendary sequence in which a biker gang stages a raid on the mall, the production also managed to find real bikers in form of a group called The Pagans, who brought their own motorcycles for the shoot.

“I don’t remember who contacted them, but they just showed up,” Chris Romero later recalled.

10. Dawn of the Dead almost featured a darker ending.

During production on Dawn of the Dead, George Romero told Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo that the film had, in Flippo’s words “no beginning and two endings.” Romero explained that this was because he was working “moment to moment” on the film. He eventually figured the beginning of the film out, of course, and went with an ending in which Peter and Francine fight their way out of the mall and onto the roof, where they escape in the helicopter. So, what was the other ending?

On the film’s commentary track, George and Chris Romero and Tom Savini all discuss a much darker concept to close the film, in which Peter would have shot himself (which he contemplates doing in the final cut) while Francine would have leapt into the spinning blades of the helicopter, mirroring one of the most famous zombie deaths earlier in the film. That ending would have followed in the footsteps of Night of the Living Dead’s dark ending, but Romero ultimately decided on something lighter.

Still, the original plan didn’t go to waste: Savini had already made a cast of actress Gaylen Ross’s head to use for Francine’s death scene, so he repurposed it—with the help of some makeup and a wig—for the famous exploding head shot during the housing project raid.

Additional Sources:
Shock Value by Jason Zinoman (The Penguin Press, 2011)
Dawn of the Dead DVD Commentary (Anchor Bay, 2004)

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