Sussex Torpedoed, Rasputin’s Influence Grows

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 230th installment in the series.

March 24-25, 1916: Sussex Torpedoed, Rasputin’s Influence Grows

After Germany resumed its campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare against Allied and neutral shipping in a war zone around the British Isles at the beginning of March, it was only a matter of time before the simmering diplomatic conflict between Germany and America threatened to boil over again too. In fact the flashpoint came even sooner than most people expected. 

At 2:50 p.m. on March 24, 1916 the French steamer Sussex, an unarmed ferry carrying civilian passengers and mail across the English Channel, was torpedoed without warning by the German U-boat U-29, fresh from sinking four British, French, and neutral merchant ships over the previous five days. Although the explosion split the ship in half and the bow sank, the rest of the Sussex didn’t sink, and was later towed to safety and repaired.

A number of passengers provided eyewitness testimony about the torpedo attack. Two passengers, Edward Huxley and Francis Drake, stated in their affidavit:

Without the slightest warning there occurred a loud, roaring explosion. Wreckage and tons of water were thrown into the air higher than the masts, and the water came down on the boat as far back as the stern. We went forward and saw the entire forward part of the ship, including part of the bridge and the forward mast, gone. Some men and women jumped overboard at once, and we threw over rafts and seats to them… After 10 minutes of watching we decided that as the ship was apparently not sinking, we would stay with her. 


Of her roughly 380 passengers and crew, around 50 died in the attack or drowned afterwards, partly due to mishaps when deploying the lifeboats; the rest were rescued after drifting in one of the watertight hulks for nine hours (above, a photo taken on board the Sussex after it was torpedoed). Another passenger, Edward Marshall, recalled the hours of waiting for rescue before a French fishing trawler, British torpedo boat, and British destroyer finally arrived to rescue them:

I went among the wounded. Their injuries were freakish. Both of one man’s legs were twisted till his feet pointed backward. Another’s face had been blown in by the explosion and presented an extraordinary spectacle. He was unconscious… I went below, having done all that I could, and having fallen once or twice on the slippery decks. There, in which I think must be the steerage of the ship, we huddled, shivering, some women sobbing, one or two, definitely crazed, shrieking constantly, a few children crying, by now weakly, and moans coming from the lightly injured. 

At first glance there was no cause for a diplomatic falling out between Washington and Berlin, as no U.S. citizens had been killed – but several Americans were injured, and U.S. public opinion, guided as always by outraged newspaper reports, focused on the fact that the attack could easily have resulted in American fatalities. Following Secretary of State Robert Lansing’s strong protest against the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare when it was first announced in February, President Woodrow Wilson had no choice but to launch a new round of diplomatic brinksmanship with Germany. 

As in previous conflicts over the sinking of the Gulflight, Lusitania, Falaba, and Arabic, the situation was complicated by the fact that the German U-boat in question was still at sea and incommunicado, and the Germans contended the Sussex may have hit a British mine in the channel. Nonetheless, scores of witnesses reported seeing the torpedo trail, and after several weeks spent trying to deny involvement the German foreign office finally admitted responsibility in early April.

In a letter delivered to German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow on April 18, 1916, Secretary of State Lansing warned his counterpart that Berlin was once again playing with fire, noting that the sinking violated Germany’s own pledges not to sink passenger ships. Lansing advised that, 

… the Imperial Government has failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation which has resulted, not alone from the attack on the Sussex, but from the whole method and character of submarine warfare… Again and again the Imperial Government has given its solemn assurances to the Government of the United States that at least passenger ships would not be thus dealt with, and yet it has repeatedly permitted its undersea commanders to disregard those assurances with entire impunity. 

The letter went on to issue an ominous threat, after condemning these methods as

… utterly incompatible with the principles of humanity, the long-established and incontrovertible rights of neutrals, and the sacred immunities of non-combatants… Unless the Imperial Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether. 

As before, the threat to break off diplomatic relations was understood as an immediate preamble to the opening of hostilities. Less than two months into the new unrestricted U-boat campaign, by mid-April Berlin would once again find itself facing war with the world’s most powerful neutral nation. 

Rasputin’s Influence Grows 

One sign of Russia’s growing instability was the constant changing of the Tsar’s cabinet, with four different prime ministers serving from 1915-1916 alone, and dozens of other ministers coming and going in a revolving door government.  Following the failed attack at Lake Naroch in mid-March, Tsar Nicholas II shuffled his cabinet yet again, dismissing Minister of War Alexei Polivanov, a respected administrator, and replacing him with Dmitry Shuvaev, previously the quartermaster general, on March 25, 1916.

Although Polivanov was supposedly relieved because of the repeated defeats suffered by the Russian Army on the Eastern Front, his real offense was crossing the Tsarina Alexandra and her court favorite, the malign holy man Rasputin, who objected to Polivanov’s liberal views and personal dislike of Rasputin. His replacement was a sign of Rasputin’s growing power, as he waged proxy wars against his opponents in the cabinet and the Holy Synod, the ruling body of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

Shuvaev was by all accounts a “non-entity,” as even the Tsar himself seems to have admitted. Sir John Hanbury Williams, the chief of the British military mission to Russia, recorded Nicholas’ remark about the new Minister of War in his diary on March 25, 1916: “In conversation with him on appointments, he said he would much prefer a level-headed man who was a good judge of men and knew how to work a good staff to a very brilliant man who centred too much in himself.” 

The French ambassador to Petrograd, Maurice Paleologue, was much more blunt, writing in his diary on April 2, 1916: 

General Polivanov, the War Minister, has been relieved of his functions and replaced by General Shuvaïev, a man of mean intelligence. General Polivanov’s dismissal is a serious loss to the Alliance… He was not only an excellent administrator, as methodical and ingenious as upright and vigilant, but possessed the strategic sense in a very high degree… He seemed to be a last line of defence of the existing regime, capable of protecting it both against the extravagances of absolutism and the excesses of revolution. 

Rasputin’s influence on the court was common knowledge at all levels of Russian society. On March 23, 1916, Paleologue recorded a conversation with an unnamed aristocratic woman about the precarious situation of Foreign Minister Sazonov, in which she stated her own disgust at the growing power of the Siberian peasant: 

“Yes, but how much longer will he be in power? What's going on behind his back? Is there anything brewing that he knows nothing of? No doubt you know that the Empress hates him, because he has always refused to bow the knee to the abject scoundrel who is bringing Russia to shame. I won't tell you who the ruffian is; I couldn't pronounce his name without being sick.” 

On March 29, 1916 he recorded another alarming conversation with Vladimir Kokovtsov, the former prime minister, who warned that Rasputin – notorious for his late-night partying and frequent visits to prostitutes – was bringing the church into fatal disrepute: 

“The religious forces of this country will not be able to withstand the abominable strain upon them much longer. The Episcopate and high ecclesiastical offices are now completely under the heel of the Rasputin clique. It’s like an unclean disease, a gangrene which will soon have devoured all the higher ranks of the Church. I could shed tears of shame when I think of the ignoble traffic that goes on in the offices of the Holy Synod on certain days.” 

While most of Rasputin’s opponents were whispering these sentiments behind closed doors, some were willing to risk the Tsarina’s wrath with open denunciations. The liberal Russian newspaper New Times stated the case against Rasputin in dramatic terms, and hinted at the extreme measures already under contemplation in some quarters: 

How has an abject adventurer like this been able to mock Russia for so long? Is it not astounding that the Church, the Holy Synod, the aristocracy, ministers, the Senate, and many members of the State Council and Duma have degraded themselves before this low hound? The Rasputin scandals seemed perfectly natural [before but] today Russia means to put an end to all this. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

The Psychology Behind Kids' L.O.L. Surprise! Doll Obsession

Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Isaac Larian, the founder and CEO of toymaker MGA Entertainment, is an insomniac. Fortunately for him, that inability to sleep forced him to get up out of bed one night—a move that ended up being worth $4 billion.

Larian’s company is the architect of L.O.L. Surprise!, a line of dolls with a clever conceit. The product, which retails for about $10 to $20, is encased in a ball-shaped plastic shell and buried under layers of packaging, forcing children to tear through a gauntlet of wrapping before they’re able to see it. The inspiration came on that highly profitable sleepless night, which Larian spent watching unboxing videos on YouTube. It resulted in the first toy made for a generation wired for delayed gratification.

The dolls first went on sale in test markets at select Target stores in late 2016. MGA shipped out 500,000 of them, all of which sold out within two months. A Cabbage Patch Kid-esque frenzy came the following year. By late 2018, L.O.L. Surprise! (the acronym stands for the fancifully redundant Little Outrageous Little) had moved 800 million units, accounted for seven of the top 10 toys sold in the U.S., and was named Toy of the Year by the Toy Association. Videos of kids and adults unboxing them garner millions of views on YouTube, which is precisely where Larian knew his marketing would be most effective.

A woman holds a L.O.L. Surprise doll and packaging in her hand
Cindy Ord, Getty Images for MGA Entertainment

The dolls themselves are nothing revolutionary. Once freed from their plastic prisons, they stare at their owner with doe-eyed expressions. Some “tinkle,” while others change color in water. They can be dressed in accessories found in the balls or paired with tiny pets (which also must be "unboxed"). Larger bundles, like last year’s $89.99 L.O.L. Bigger Surprise! capsule, feature a plethora of items, each individually wrapped. It took a writer from The New York Times 59 minutes to uncover everything inside.

This methodical excavation is what makes L.O.L. Surprise! so appealing to its pint-sized target audience. Though MGA was advised that kids wouldn’t want to buy something they couldn’t see, Larian and his executives had an instinctual understanding of what child development experts already knew: Kids like looking forward to things.

Dr. Rachel Barr, director of Georgetown University’s Early Learning Project, told The Atlantic that unboxing videos tickle the part of a child’s brain that enjoys anticipation. By age 4 or 5, they have a concept of “the future,” or events that will unfold somewhere other than the present. However, Barr said, they’re also wary of being scared by an unforeseen outcome. In an unboxing video, they know the payoff will be positive and not, say, a live tarantula.

L.O.L. Surprise! is engineered to prolong that anticipatory joy, with kids peeling away wrapping like an onion for up to 20 minutes at a time. The effect is not entirely novel—baseball card collectors have been buying and unwrapping card packs without knowing exactly what’s inside for decades—but paired with social media, MGA was able to strike oil. The dolls now have 350 licensees making everything from bed sheets to apparel. Collectors—or their parents—can buy a $199.99 doll house. So-called “boy toys” are now lurking inside the wrappers, with one, the mohawk-sporting Punk Boi, causing a mild stir for being what MGA calls “anatomically correct.” His tiny plastic genital area facilitates a peeing function.

Whether L.O.L. Surprise! bucks conventional toy trends and continues its popularity beyond a handful of holiday seasons remains to be seen. Already, MGA is pushing alternative products like Poopsie Slime Surprise, a unicorn that can be fed glitter and poops a viscous green slime. An official unboxing video has been viewed 4.2 million times and counting.

The 8 Most Anticipated Horror Movies of 2019

Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Michele K. Short, Universal Pictures

Between Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and Halloween, 2018 was a killer year for horror moviesand 2019 is shaping up to be just as impressive. While remakes seem to be dominating the schedule in the coming months, there are plenty of sequels, adaptations, and even a few promising original titles coming out as well. Here are some of the scary movies we're most looking forward to seeing this year.

1. Us

In 2017, Jordan Peele revolutionized the horror genre with Get Out. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker plans to do the same again with Us, which features a predominantly black cast—a rarity for a horror movie. "I dedicated a lot of myself to creating a new horror mythology and a new monster," Peele said of the film. "I think that monsters and stories about monsters are our best ways of getting at deeper truths and facing our fears as a society ... It’s also important to note that this movie, unlike Get Out, is not about race. It is instead about something I feel has become an undeniable truth. That is the simple fact that we are our own worst enemies." Us, which stars Elisabeth Moss and Lupita Nyong'o, arrives in theaters on March 22, 2019.

2. IT: Chapter 2

Stephen King fans were thrilled with 2017's IT, the second adaptation of the horror master's beloved 1986 novel. Andy Muschietti is sitting in the director's chair again for the second chapter, which will follow the Losers Club as they return to Derry, Maine in their adult years. While Bill Skarsgård will reprise his role as Pennywise, impressive new additions to the cast include Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy. The film debuts on September 6, 2019.

3. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

If you’ve been a horror fiend since childhood, you’ll no doubt remember Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series. The books included memorable illustrations by Stephen Gammell, some of which no doubt haunted many children’s nightmares. The film adaptation will be released on August 9, 2019.

4. Zombieland 2

Venom director Ruben Fleischer's feature debut, 2009's Zombieland, was an instant hit with both horror and comedy fans. And they've been waiting 10 years for a sequel. Finally, we’ll be getting a second film this year with Fleischer directing and Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and even Bill Murray all confirmed to return. Zombieland 2 is set to hit theaters on October 11, 2019.

5. Happy Death Day 2U

The hilariously bad-but-fun Happy Death Day (2017) surprised audiences with how flat-out entertaining it was, so much so that fans were thrilled to hear there were plans for a sequel. Much like the original movie, the second film will follow protagonist Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) as she’s killed every single day. But this time, the killer is coming for her friends, too. Happy Death Day 2U premieres on February 14, 2019.

6. Pet Sematary

Though Mary Lambert's original Pet Sematary (1989) was not met with much critical acclaim, fans of the Stephen King novel were pleased with the adaptation, and are excited to see the story come to life again. The remake, which is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and stars John Lithgow and Jason Clarke, debuts on April 5, 2019.

7. Child’s Play

When rumors began swirling that there was going to be another Chucky movie, and that it would be a remake of the original Child’s Play at that, people—including the original series creator Don Mancini—didn't initially seem too excited.

But as more details—including a cast list that includes Aubrey Plaza and Brian Tyree Henry—were made public, interest in the project seemed to grow. Child’s Play hits theaters June 21, 2019.

8. The Prodigy

Creepy kids will never fail to make terrifying horror movie villains. In The Prodigy, Taylor Schilling’s character discovers something supernatural might be happening to her son when he starts acting as if he’s possessed. (Spoiler alert: He probably is). The film will be released on February 8, 2019.

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