Brits Fail To Lift Kut Siege

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 231st installment in the series. 

April 5, 1916: Brits Fail to Lift Kut Siege 

By early April 1916, the situation of the roughly 10,000 British and Indian troops trapped by the Turks at Kut Al Amara on the Tigris River was reaching the crisis stage, as the outnumbered defenders under Major-General Charles Townshend slowly succumbed to the age-old enemy of the besieged – hunger. With dwindling food supplies set to give out in late April, there were only a few weeks left for the main body of the Indian Expeditionary Force to lift the siege and relieve the starving defenders (above, Indian troops inside Kut man an antiaircraft machine gun). 

Following the failure of the relief force to lift the siege at Hanna, the British high command went into full panic mode, shuffling commanders frantically in a misconceived attempt to accelerate the process. Overall theatre commander General John Nixon, whose bold ambition had led to the debacle, was replaced by Percy Lake, and Feynton Aylmer, commanding the relief force outside Kut, was replaced by Sir George Gorringe after a failed attack against another Turkish stronghold southeast of Kut, the Dujaila redoubt. 

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Gorringe received reinforcements in the form of the newly-arrived 13th Division, bringing his total force to 30,000, on par with the reinforced Turkish Sixth Army under Khalil Pasha (not great numerical odds by the standards of the First World; below, Turkish reinforcement arrive by raft). Gorringe, already thoroughly disliked by his troops and officers for his difficult personality, had little choice but to immediately attack the Turkish besieging army, now under the direct command of Khalil Pasha, on April 5, 1916. 

The final Battle of Kut, from April 5-22, would begin with greater preparation and coordination during the initial assault, which found the Turkish frontline trenches mostly deserted, but soon dissolved into chaotic combat slogging across the muddy plains of the middle Tigris River. Following a heavy artillery bombardment in the early morning of April 5, the Anglo-Indian infantry managed to advance and capture a large stretch of Turkish trenches at Hanna, just as the attack began to go off the rails thanks to over-eager British officers. Edward Roe, a junior officer, recalled: 

At 4.30 am the whistles sounded and over we go. Only a few stray and ill-aimed shots greet us instead of the hail of lead, which we expected, and the first two lines are taken with trifling loss. We are deafened by the detonations of hundreds of shells of all calibres, which are bursting on and over the second Turkish position. The air seems to be full of express trains… On meeting with no opposition our officers lost their heads and, instead of obeying orders by remaining for the stipulated twenty minutes in the captured Turkish trenches, flourished their revolvers and yelled, ‘Come on boys, we’ve got them on the run. We won’t stop until we get to Kut.’…We made a dive for the first line in the enemy’s second position and of course came under the fire of our own artillery. Men were sent to Kingdom Come in bundles of eight by our howitzers and river monitors. 

As Roe’s account suggests, the attack on the second Turkish defensive line at Fallahiyeh, late on the night of April 5, swiftly ran into a fierce wall of fire as they advanced across the muddy morass on both the north and south banks of the Tigris River. Unfortunately for the Anglo-Indian rank and file, their officers were now in unfamiliar territory: 

This attack was not rehearsed; we simply walked into the void so to speak. I don’t believe that one of the many officers, senior and junior, who led the attack had the faintest idea of the plan or construction of the Turkish defences, as no aerial photographs were available. We simple walked ‘into it’… Another dearly bought lesson on the futility of night attacks unless everything is worked out in the minutest detail before embarking on such hazardous enterprises. 

The Fallahiyeh defenses finally fell after steep British losses, but the Turks had built one more defensive line consisting of multiple trenches, protecting the rear of the besieging force, further upriver at Sannayiat, where the Turks repulsed a series of British attacks from April 6-9, 1916. British losses on the night of April 9 were particularly grave, as the Turks lay in wait for the Anglo-Indian infantry advancing across no-man’s-land before sending up dozens of flares to spring the trap. The casualties included Roe himself: 

… ‘twas like one man pressing a switch. By their ghastly flares their position was revealed to us and we to them. Turks were shoulder to shoulder in the trench. Machine guns were embedded on the parados, as also were Turks in the kneeling and standing positions. Before the flares expired their shrapnel was on us good and hard. A cyclone of bullets from machine guns and rifles battered and tore great gaps in the closely packed lines. Men fell by the dozen. You could hear the continual thud of the bullets as they came into contact with human bodies… Dawn was breaking. All was confusion… I got a bullet through the left arm – stars! – and I dropped. 

With his advance stymied on the southern bank of the river, Gorringe decided to try the northern bank and met with some success here, overrunning Turkish defenses at Bait Aisa on April 17, then holding it against a determined Turkish counterattack. But progress on the north bank soon petered out as well, prompting Gorringe to return to Sannayiat with one final attack on April 22.

As these desperate final gambits unfolded, the small Anglo-Indian force trapped inside Kut was approaching final collapse, as the last remaining sources of food (including their own horses) began to run out. Colonel W.C. Spackman, a British medical officer with an Indian infantry battalion inside Kut, noted in his diary entry on April 13:

Things are getting rather desperate. We only get five oz of bread each day which it would be quite easy to finish off at breakfast though the only thing left to eat with it is anchovy sauce!... The tommies ration is bread, chiefly barley, with about one and a half lbs of horse or mule, with a pinch of salt… Our bread will be finished on 21 April unless they cut it down once more, but we could hold on a bit after that I suppose if need by on a diet of mule and grass. 

Meanwhile the British contended with natural conditions as challenging as any on the Western Front, if not more so. As the final Battle of Kut dragged on inconclusively, a few days later a medical officer, Edmund Candler, noted that both sides also faced a threat from extreme weather conditions and Tigris flooding: 

On the afternoon of the 12th we had a waterspout, a hailstorm and a hurricane. The spray was leaping 4 ft. high in the Tigris on our left; and on our right the Suwacha marsh threatened to come in and join the river and flood our camp... At sunset it broke into our forward trenches and the Turkish position facing them, a wave of water coming over the bund like a wall, swamping kit, rations, and entrenching tools. Some of the brigade on our right had to swim. 

Both sides also suffered from a plague of flies, according to Aubrey Herbert, a British intelligence officer, who wrote in his diary in late April: 

The flies are awful; one black web of them this morning; in one’s hair and eyes and mouth, in one’s bath and shaving-water, in one’s tea and in one’s towel… Nothing that I have ever seen or dreamed of came up to the flies. They hatched out until they were almost the air. They were in myriads. The horses were half mad. The flies were mostly tiny. They rolled up in little balls when one passed one’s hand across one’s sweating face. They were on your eyelids and lashes and in your lips and nostrils. We could not speak for them, and could hardly see… They were like a visible fever, shimmering in the burning light all round.

Germans Advance At Verdun

As April 1916 began the world’s attention remained fixated on the bloody drama of Verdun, where the German Fifth Army was pressing forward around the fortress city in the face of a tooth and nail defense, mounted by French divisions drawn from across the Western Front and rotated through the Verdun abattoir by theatre commander Philippe Petain. 

Apparently an all-out German push to capture the symbolic and strategically important city, the attack on Verdun was actually the centerpiece of German chief of the general staff’s secret strategy for a battle of attrition. By threatening a key objective that the French would never give up, then assuming strong defensive positions which the French would be forced to counterattack endlessly, Falkenhayn hoped to bleed the French Army to death. 

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The plan nearly succeeded, but for a few key details. Obsessed with secrecy, Falkenhayn apparently never communicated his true intent to the commander of the German Fifth Army tasked with carrying out the attack on Verdun, the German crown prince Friedrich Wilhelm. Embracing the straightforward goal of capturing Verdun, after the success of the initial advance the crown prince and his subordinates abandoned caution and raced ahead of Falkenhayn’s plan, advancing as far as they could in each new offensive until reorganized French defenses finally forced them to stop. 

In practice this meant that instead of advancing from ridge to ridge, they sometimes ended up conquering and holding (or trying to hold) low-lying ground where it was they, not the French, who were exposed to artillery fire. This in turn meant the Germans were suffering almost as heavy losses as the French – hardly a successful long-term approach to a battle of attrition. 

Nonetheless the German Fifth Army ground ahead in March and early April, with scores of relatively small attacks and counterattacks across the battlefield as both sides grappled for key strategic positions. In March the Germans advanced near the village of Forges, Regneville, Haucourt, and Malancourt, while also gaining ground near the saddleback hill appropriately known as Le Morte Homme (“The Dead Man”) on the western bank of the Meuse and around Fort Vaux on the eastern bank. 

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Beginning March 20 the fighting grew in intensity on the west bank of the Meuse, as the newly-arrived 11th Bavarian Division sent the French 29th Division reeling back near the Bois d’Avocourt (forest of Avocourt) and Bois d’Malancourt (forest of Malancourt), west of the strategic Hill 304, where it advanced despite heavy loses. Then on March 31 the Germans captured the village of Malancourt itself, followed by the village of Haucourt on April 5, and Bethincourt on April 9. 

Meanwhile it took around a month for the Germans to subdue the village of Vaux beneath Fort Vaux, with this tiny patch of land the site of over a dozen attacks and counterattacks in March and April; the real prize, Fort Vaux, remained out of reach.

As on the west bank of the Meuse, the main battlefields here were by now carpeted with dead, around whose bodies their comrades had to navigate as they fought for their own lives. One French staff officer described the German supply system, using chains of men to bring up entrenching materials like a fire brigade passing buckets of water east of Douaumont on April 2, 1916: 

Cover was disdained. The workers stood at full height, and the chain stretched openly across the hollows and hillocks, a fair target for the French gunners. The latter missed no chance… Gradually another line doubled the chain of the workers, as the upheaved corpses formed a continuous embankment, each additional dead man giving greater protection to his comrades, until the barrier began to form shape along the diameter of the wood. There others were digging and burying logs into the earth, installing shelters and mitrailleuses [machine guns], or feverishly building fortifications. 

Later, a French sapper crew heroically tunneled forward to plant explosives under the new fortifications built by the Germans at such heavy cost, and was almost wiped out itself – but only after helping win back this scrap of territory: 

Suddenly there comes a roar that dwarfs the cannonade, and along the barrier fountains of fire rise skyward, hurling a rain of fragments upon what was left of the blasting party. The barricade was breached, but 75 per cent. of the devoted corps had given their lives to do it. As the survivors lay exhausted, the attackers charged over them, cheering… Over 6,000 Germans were counted in a section a quarter of a mile square… The enemy had piled a second barrier of corpses close behind the first, so that the soft human flesh would act as a buffer to neutralize the force of the shells. 

Later, the French novelist Henry Bordeaux transcribed an undelivered letter found on a wounded German at Verdun, written to his sister and brother-in-law and also dated April 2, 1916:

This is to let you know I am in good health, although half dead from fatigue and fright. I cannot describe to you all I have lived through here, it goes far beyond anything we had had to put up with before. In about three days the company has lost more than a hundred men. Several times I didn’t know whether I was alive or already dead… I have already given up all hope of ever seeing you again. 

Another French officer recalled the sights in trenches that had traded hands several times: “You found the dead embedded in the walls of the trenches, heads, legs and half-bodies, just as they had been shoveled out of the way by the picks and shovels of the working party.”

By this time roughly the Germans had suffered roughly 82,000 casualties, compared to 89,000 French – and the battle was just beginning. As one French colonel told his men: “You have a mission of sacrifice; here is a post of honour where they want to attack. Every day you will have casualties, because they will disturb your work. On the day they want to, they will massacre you to the last man, and it is your duty to fall.” The next big German push was scheduled for April 9, as the Fifth Army prepared a general assault to pave the way for a breakthrough at Le Mort Homme. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

Netflix Is Testing Commercials, and Subscribers Aren't Happy

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iStock

Save the occasional "Are you still watching?" message popping up between episodes, it's possible to watch an entire Netflix series in one sitting with little to no distractions. Now, the streaming service is testing something that could upend that: As CNN reports, Netflix has quietly started sprinkling advertisements into its programming, something the subscription-based service has been able to avoid up to this point.

The promotional content Netflix is experimenting with differs from conventional cable commercials in some fundamental ways. The promos won't be advertising third-party brands, Netflix promises: Rather, they'll exclusively show off Netflix original content, like seriesGlow and Stranger Things (though one Reddit user did report seeing an ad for Better Call Saul, which Netflix licenses from AMC). And instead of inserting ads throughout the program, as some non-subscription streaming services do, Netflix will only include them at the end of some episodes with a "skip" button similar to the one that allows viewers to bypass a show's opening credits. And each promo subscribers see will be personalized based on their viewing habits, hopefully turning them on to new shows and not just annoying them in the middle of their binge-watching sessions.

Despite these assurances from Netflix, viewers aren't happy. Many customers have taken to social media threatening to cancel their service if the promos become the norm, which likely may not happen: They've only been shown to a select number of test viewers so far, and based on user response, Netflix may decide to pull the plug on the experiment.

The good news is that as long as the ads are still in the test phase, you can choose to opt out of them. Just go to Netflix.com/DoNotTest and toggle off the switch next to the words "Include me in tests and previews." Now you're ready to resume your binge-watching marathon without interruption.

[h/t CNN]

10 Things You Might Not Know About Columbo

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

For more than 40 years, Peter Falk entered living rooms around the world as Lieutenant Columbo, an unconventional L.A. homicide detective known for his ruffled raincoat and trademark cigar. The actor would go on to win four Emmys for the role, while the series itself remains a benchmark for television crime dramas. But if series creators William Link and Richard Levinson went with their initial choice, the iconic role of Columbo would have gone to a syrupy-smooth crooner rather than the inelegant Falk. Get familiar with one of TV's most unique heroes with facts about Columbo.

1. BING CROSBY WAS ORIGINALLY EYED FOR THE ROLE.

Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link's first choice to play their low-key detective was crooner Bing Crosby. Der Bingle loved the script and the character, but he feared that a TV series commitment would interfere with his true passion—golf. It was probably providential that Crosby turned the role down, since his death in 1977 occurred while the series was still a solid hit on NBC. 

2. PETER FALK WAS AN UNEXPECTED SEX SYMBOL.

Peter Falk in 'Columbo'
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Character actor Lee J. Cobb was also considered for the role, until Peter Falk phoned co-creator William Link. Falk had gotten a copy of the script from his agents at William Morris and told Link that he’d “kill to play that cop.” Link and Levinson knew the actor back from their days of working in New York, and even though he was the opposite of everything they’d originally pictured for Lt. Columbo, they had to admit that Falk had a certain likeability that translated to both men and women. Falk was described by a certain female demographic as “sexy,” and males liked him because he was an unthreatening, humble, blue-collar underdog who was smarter than the wealthy perps he encountered.

3. FALK WAS A GOVERNMENT WORKER BEFORE BECOMING AN ACTOR.

Peter Falk wasn’t too far removed from the character he played. In real life he tended to be rumpled and disheveled and was forever misplacing things (he was famous for losing his car keys and having to be driven home from the studio by someone else). He was also intelligent, having earned a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University, which led to him working for the State of Connecticut’s Budget Bureau as an efficiency expert until the acting bug bit him. He was also used to being underestimated due to his appearance; he’d lost his right eye to cancer at age three, and many of his drama teachers in college warned him of his limited chances in film due to his cockeyed stare. Indeed, after a screen test at Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn dismissed him by saying, “For the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.”

4. COLUMBO'S DOG WASN'T A WELCOME SIGHT AT FIRST.

Columbo's dog
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When Columbo was renewed for a second season, NBC brass had a request: they wanted the lieutenant to have a sidekick. Perhaps a young rookie detective just learning the ropes. Link and Levinson were resistant to the idea, but the network was pressuring them. They conferred with Steven Bochco, who was writing the script for the season opener, “Etude in Black,” and together they hatched the idea of giving Lt. Columbo a dog as a “partner.” Falk was against the idea at first; he felt that between the raincoat, cigar, and Peugeot his character had enough gimmicks. But when he met the lethargic, drooling Basset Hound that had been plucked from a pound, Falk knew it was perfect for Columbo's dog.

The original dog passed away in between the end of the original NBC run of the series and its renewal on ABC, so a replacement was necessary. The new pup was visibly younger than the original dog, and as a result spent more time in the makeup chair to make him look older.

5. FALK'S REAL-LIFE WIFE PLAYED A ROLE IN THE SERIES.

Falk first met Shera Danese, the woman who would become his second wife, on the set of his 1976 film Mikey & Nicky. The movie was being filmed in Danese’s hometown of Philadelphia, and the aspiring actress had landed work as an extra. They were married in 1977, and she was able to pad out her resume by appearing on several episodes of Columbo. Her first few appearances were limited to small walk-on parts—secretaries, sexy assistants, etc. By the time the series was resurrected on ABC in the early 1990s, she was awarded larger roles.

She originally auditioned for the role of the titular rock star in 1991’s “Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star,” but her husband adamantly refused, since the role included a scene of her in bed making love to a much younger man. She instead played the role of a co-conspiring attorney, and was also allowed to sing the song that was the major hit for the murdered star.

6. THE CHARACTER'S TRADEMARK RAINCOAT CAME FROM FALK'S CLOSET.

The initial wardrobe proposed for Columbo struck Peter Falk as completely wrong for the character. To get closer to what he wanted for Columbo, the actor went into his closet and found a beat-up coat he had bought years earlier when caught in a rainstorm on 57th Street. And he ordered one of the blue suits chosen for him to be dyed brown. The drab outfit would become one of the trademarks of the character for decades.

7. STEVEN SPIELBERG GOT AN EARLY BREAK ON COLUMBO.

“Murder by the Book” was the second Columbo episode filmed, but it was the first one to air after the show was picked up as a series. Filming was delayed for a month, though, when Falk refused to sign off on this “kid”—a 25-year-old named Steven Spielberg—to direct the episode. Finally he watched a few of Spielberg’s previous credits (all of them TV episodes) and was impressed by his work on the short-lived NBC series called The Psychiatrist. Once filming was underway, Falk was impressed by many of the techniques employed by the young director, such as filming a street scene with a long lens from a building across the road. “That wasn’t common 20 years ago,” Falk said. He went on to tell producers Link and Levinson that “this guy is too good for Columbo."

8. COLUMBO'S FIRST NAME WOUND UP THE SUBJECT OF A LAWSUIT.

Fred L. Worth, author of several books of trivia facts, had a sneaking feeling that other folks were using his meticulously researched facts without crediting him. He set a “copyright trap” and mentioned in one of his books that Lt. Columbo’s first name was “Philip,” although he had completely fabricated that so-called fact. Sure enough, a 1984 edition of the Trivial Pursuit board game listed the “Philip” Columbo name as an answer on one of their cards, which led to a $300 million lawsuit filed by Mr. Worth.

The board game creators admitted in court that they’d garnered their Columbo fact from Worth’s book, but the judge ultimately determined that it was not an actionable offense. By the way, years later when Columbo was available in syndicated reruns and HD TV was an option, alert viewers were able to freeze-frame a scene where the rumpled lieutenant extended his badge for identification purposes in the season one episode “Dead Weight” and determine that his first name was, in fact, “Frank.”

9. THE SERIES DIDN'T FOLLOW A STANDARD MYSTERY FORMAT.

The premise of Columbo was the “inverted mystery,” or a “HowCatchEm” instead of a “WhoDunIt.” Every episode began with the actual crime being played out in full view of the audience, meaning viewers already knew “WhodunIt.” What they wanted to know is how Lt. Columbo would slowly zero in on the perpetrator. This sort of story was particularly challenging for the series’s writers, and they sometimes found inspiration in the most unlikely places. Like the Yellow Pages, for example. One of Peter Falk’s personal favorite episodes, “Now You See Him,” had its genesis when the writers were flipping through the telephone book looking for a possible profession for a Columbo murderer (keep in mind that all of Columbo’s victims and perps were of the Beverly Hills elite variety, not your typical Starsky and Hutch-type thug).

A page listing professional magicians caught their eye, and that led to a classic episode featuring the ever-suave Jack Cassidy playing the role of the former SS Nazi officer who worked as a nightclub magician. When the Jewish nightclub owner recognized him and threatened to expose him, well, you can guess what happened. But the challenge is to guess how Lt. Columbo ultimately caught him. 

10. THERE WAS A SPINOFF THAT KIND OF WAS BUT THEN WASN'T.

The 1979 TV series entitled Mrs. Columbo was not technically related to the original Peter Falk series. In fact, Levinson and Link opposed the entire concept of the series; it was NBC honcho Fred Silverman who gave the OK to use the Columbo name and imply that Kate Mulgrew was the widowed/divorced wife (the series changed names and backstories several times during its short run) of the famed homicide detective. The “real” Mrs. Columbo was never mentioned by her first name during the original series, but actor Peter Falk possibly slipped and revealed that her name was “Rose” when he appeared at this Dean Martin Roast saluting Frank Sinatra and asked for an autograph.

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