Russians Capture Trabzon

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 232nd installment in the series. 

APRIL 15, 1916: RUSSIANS CAPTURE TRABZON

While Russia’s main spring offensive on the Eastern Front failed at the Battle of Lake Naroch from March 18-30, 1916, Russian arms won great victories further afield in the opening months of 1916, most notably on the Caucasian Front. After a breakthrough at Köprüköy in January, Russian troops captured the ancient and strategically sited city of Erzurum in February, and then continued to advance west into the Turkish heartland of central Anatolia.

On April 15, 1916 the Russians delivered another discouraging setback to the Ottoman Empire with the occupation of Trabzon, another ancient city with both symbolic and strategic importance, abandoned without a fight by the outnumbered Turks. Originally founded in 756 BCE by Greek colonists from the nearby port of Sinope, Trapezous was known to the Romans as Trebizond and during the decline of the Byzantine Empire became the seat of its own empire from the 13th-15th centuries.

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In the context of the First World War, its location on the north coast of Anatolia would allow the Russians to begin delivering supplies to the Caucasian Army partly by sea, avoiding the circuitous and time-consuming journey over the incredibly primitive terrain of the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia, with few roads and these mostly unfinished. It also boosted Allied morale and cemented Russian claims to territory in Asia Minor ahead of the long-expected breakup of the Ottoman Empire (now being negotiated by Allied diplomats in what would become the Sykes-Picot Agreement). 

As in other recently conquered territories in Anatolia, the advancing Russians were shocked to find the region’s once-thriving Armenian Christian population had been more or less wiped out. Trabzon had been home to roughly 30,000 Armenians before the war, all of whom were massacred or deported during the ongoing Armenian genocide, including thousands herded out into the water or dumped from boats and drowned in the Black Sea at Trabzon.

The anonymous author of “The Russian Diary of an Englishman in Petrograd,” believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Stopford, noted reports that the Turks were targeting many other minorities besides Armenians, including Christian Greeks and Assyrians: “When the Russians got to Erzrum there was not one Christian alive save six girls in the American Consulate. The guide of the Tiflis Hotel was a Christian Turk, not Armenian and his town was a little to the south of Erzrum. There all the Christians were also massacred – 840, including his old grandmother.” 

Meanwhile diplomatic documents from the Ottoman Empire’s own ally, Imperial Germany, confirmed that the genocide was still in full swing in the spring of 1916 and left little doubt that it was officially sanctioned. The German ambassador to Constantinople, Wolff-Metternich, wrote to the Imperial chancellor Bethmann Hollweg on March 27, 1916: “Despite all the assurances to the contrary, the Porte is apparently beginning to decimate the remainder of the deported and, if possible, to exterminate those who have escaped the misery and the disaster before peace is made.” 


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On April 1, 1916, Ernst Jacob Christoffel, the head of a German charity for the blind in Malatya, left an even more detailed report of his personal observations in a letter to the German embassy in Constantinople: 

Not a single Armenian sound is to be heard anywhere. Thousands were killed in Gemerek. In the area surrounding Yozgad, the population from 6 Armenian villages was massacred, all of them, even the infants… There were 500 men in a village near Sivas with which I have good relations; 30 of them are still alive. A family of 18 lost 14 of its members through sickness and murder. Out of other large families, one or 2 members are still alive. There are not isolated cases, but rather the rule. The number of those killed may be inferred from this. 

Armenians who managed to survive the death marches then had to endure conditions in “concentration camps” that were in fact death camps, left to die in the desert with no food, no medicine, and no shelter. Often the process was hurried along by raids by itinerant neighbors looking to steal any remaining possessions or kidnap and rape Armenian women. April 6, 1916, Ernst Rössler, the German consul in Aleppo, wrote in a letter to the embassy in Constantinople: “During the past few days, the Armenian concentration camp in Ras-ul-Ain was attacked by the Circassians and other similar people living nearby. The largest part of the unarmed 14,000 inmates was massacred. There are no further details at this point; I will be informed of them later.”

On April 27 Rössler noted independent reports from Muslim Arabs serving in a labor corps, shocked at their first encounters with the genocide:

As the building of two bridges proved to be necessary… the 4th Army delivered a Syrian Muslim pioneer battalion for this purpose about 15 April. These people, who were transported in two days from Damascus to Ras-ul-Ain and who did not know anything about the plight of the deported Armenians and, as it can be presumed, were not influenced along the way, were quite horrified upon their arrival. They were of the opinion that the Armenians had been massacred by soldiers. This again demonstrates the common belief that the act had been done under orders. In any case, this was the opinion generally widespread in the area. 

ESCADRILLE LAFAYETTE FORMED 

Over two thousand miles to the west, on April 16, 1916 France celebrated one of the biggest symbolic demonstrations of unofficial American support yet, with the formation of the Escadrille Lafayette or “Lafayette Squadron,” an all-volunteer force of American pilots who joined this independent unit to help roll back German air superiority on the Western Front. 

Originally known as the Escadrille Américaine (the name was changed in December 1916 under diplomatic pressure from Germany), the Escadrille Lafayette was actually one of two American volunteer squadrons that served in France, later augmented by the Lafayette Flying Corps (below, American pilots in the Escadrille). Both were composed mostly of young, upper-class American college men with the means to travel to France and support themselves during a long leave of absence from schools like Harvard and Princeton.

Wikimedia Commons// Public Domain 

The Escadrille Lafayette was founded by a handful of colorful characters, as reflected in their decision to adopt a lion cub called “Whiskey” as the Escadrille’s mascot, who traveled with them wherever they served (or went on leave). One of the early volunteer flyers, James McConnell, remembered some of the difficulties associated with transporting Whiskey during leave in Paris: 

The little chap had been born on a boat crossing from Africa and was advertised for sale in France. Some of the American pilots chipped in and bought him. He was a cute, bright-eyed baby lion who tried to roar in a most threatening manner but who was blissfully content the moment one gave him one's finger to suck… Lions, it developed, were not allowed in passenger coaches. The conductor was assured that “Whiskey” was quite harmless and was going to overlook the rules when the cub began to roar and tried to get at the railwayman's finger. That settled it, so two of the men had to stay behind in order to crate up "Whiskey" and take him along the next day. 

The Escadrille Lafayette went into action almost immediately at Verdun, taking to the air for the first time as a combat unit on April 20, followed by its first kill on April 24. With their birds’ eye view of the action, its pilots also played an important role observing and reporting enemy troop movements and artillery positions. They also gained a rare aerial perspective on the incredible destruction wrought by modern warfare. On May 23, 1916, volunteer pilot Victor David Chapman described the scene at Verdun from the air: 

The landscape – one wasted surface of brown powdered earth, where hills, valleys, forest and villages all merged in phantoms – was boiling with puffs of dark smoke. Even above my engine’s roar I could catch reports now and then. To the rear, on either side, tine sparks like flashed of a mirror, hither and yon, in the woods and dales, denoted the heavy guns which were raising such a dust… Even from above, one had the sense of great activity and force in the country to the rear. From every wood and hedge peeped out “parcs” of autos, wagons, tents and shelters, – while all the roadsides showed white and dusty with the ceaseless travel.

McConnell left a similar description of Verdun seen from the air: 

Now there is only that sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered Nature. It seems to belong to another world. Every sign of humanity has been swept away. The woods and roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a blackboard; of the villages nothing remains but gray smears where stone walls have tumbled together. The great forts of Douaumont and Vaux are outlined faintly, like the tracings of a finger in wet sand. One cannot distinguish any one shell crater, as one can on the pockmarked fields on either side. On the brown band the indentations are so closely interlocked that they blend into a confused mass of troubled earth. Of the trenches only broken, half-obliterated links are visible. 

Pilots also had a front-row seat for artillery bombardments, as many claimed they could actually see the shells hurtling through the air. McConnell described the strange, alarming feeling of flying through a fusillade: 

Columns of muddy smoke spurt up continually as high explosives tear deeper into this ulcered area. During heavy bombardment and attacks I have seen shells falling like rain… A smoky pall covers the sector under fire, rising so high that at a height of 1,000 feet one is enveloped in its mist-like fumes. Now and then monster projectiles hurtling through the air close by leave one’s plane rocking violently in their wake. Airplanes have been cut in two by them. 

See the previous installment or all entries

7 Things You Might Not Know About Mario Lopez

Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley
Angela Weiss, Getty Images for Oakley

While several of the actors featured in the 1990s young-adult series Saved by the Bell have fared well following the show’s end in 1994, Mario Lopez is in a class by himself. The versatile actor-emcee can be seen regularly on Extra, as host of innumerable beauty pageants, and as the author of several best-selling books on fitness. For more on Lopez, check out some of the more compelling facts we’ve rounded up on the multi-talented performer.

1. A WITCH DOCTOR SAVED HIS LIFE.

Born on October 10, 1973, in San Diego, California to parents Mario and Elvia Lopez, young Mario was initially the picture of health. But things quickly took a turn for the worse. In his 2014 autobiography, Just Between Us, Lopez wrote that he began having digestive problems immediately after birth, shrinking to just four pounds. Though doctors administered IV hydration, they told his parents nothing more could be done. Desperate, his father reached out to a witch doctor near Rosarito, Mexico who had cured his spinal ailments years earlier. The healer mixed a drink made of Pedialyte, Carnation evaporated milk, goat’s milk, and other unknown substances. It worked: Lopez kept it down and began growing, so much so that his mother declared him “the fattest baby you had ever seen in your life.”

2. HE STARTED ACTING AT 10.

A highly active kid who got involved in both tap and jazz dancing and amateur wrestling, Lopez was spotted by a talent scout during a dance competition at age 10 and was later cast in a sitcom, a.k.a. Pablo, in 1984. That led to a role in the variety show Kids Incorporated and in the 1988 Sean Penn feature film Colors. In 1989, at the age of 16, he won the role of Albert Clifford “A.C.” Slater in Saved by the Bell. By 1992, Lopez was making public appearances at malls, where female fans would regularly toss their underthings in his direction.

3. HE COULD PROBABLY BEAT YOU UP.

Lopez wrestled as an amateur throughout high school. According to the Chula Vista High School Foundation, Lopez was a state placewinner at 189 pounds in 1990. (On Saved by the Bell, Slater was also a wrestler.) He later complemented his grappling ability with boxing, often sparring professionals like Jimmy Lange and Oscar De La Hoya in bouts for charity. In 2018, Lopez posted on Instagram that he received his blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Gracie Barra Glendale instructor Robert Hill.

4. HE TURNED DOWN PLAYGIRL.

Lopez’s active lifestyle has made for a trim physique, but he’s apparently unwilling to take off more than his shirt. In 2008, Lopez said he was approached to pose for Playgirl but declined. The magazine reportedly offered him $200,000.

5. HE WAS MARRIED FOR TWO WEEKS.

Lopez had a well-publicized marriage to actress Ali Landry, but not for all the right reasons. The two were married in April 2004 and split just two weeks later, with Landry alleging Lopez had not been faithful. Lopez later disclosed he had made a miscalculation during his bachelor party in Mexico, cheating on Landry just days before the ceremony.

6. HE APPEARED ON BROADWAY.

Lopez joined the cast of Broadway’s A Chorus Line in 2008, portraying Zach, the director who coaches the cast of aspiring dancers. (It was his first stage appearance since he participated in a grade school play, where he played a tree.) His run, which lasted five months, was perceived to be part of a rash of casting choices on Broadway revolving around hunky performers to attract audiences. The role was thought to be the start of a resurgence for Lopez, who had previously appeared on Dancing with the Stars and has been a co-host of the pop culture newsmagazine show Extra since 2007.

7. HE BELIEVES HIS DOG SUFFERED FROM POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION.

In 2010, Lopez and then-girlfriend (now wife) Courtney Mazza had their first child, Gia. According to Lopez, his French bulldog, Julio César Chavez Lopez, exhibited signs of depression following the new addition to the household. Lopez also said he used his extensive knowledge of dogs to better inform his voiceover work as a Labrador retriever in 2009’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas and 2010’s The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation.

The Legend of Cry Baby Lane: The Lost Nickelodeon Movie That Was Too Scary for TV

Nickelodeon, Viacom
Nickelodeon, Viacom

Several years ago, rumors about a lost Nickelodeon movie branded too disturbing for children’s television began popping up around the internet. They all referenced the same plot: A father of conjoined twins was so ashamed of his sons that he hid them away throughout their childhood. (This being a made-for-TV horror movie, naturally one of the twins was evil.)

After one twin got sick the other soon followed, with both boys eventually succumbing to the illness. To keep the town from discovering his secret, the father separated their bodies with a rusty saw and buried the good one at the local cemetery and the evil one at the end of a desolate dirt road called Cry Baby Lane, which also happened to be the title of the rumored film. According to the local undertaker, anyone who ventured down Cry Baby Lane after dark could hear the evil brother crying from beyond the grave.

Cry Baby Lane then jumps to present day (well, present day in 2000), where a group of teens sneaks into the local graveyard in an effort to contact the spirit of the good twin. After holding a seance, they learn that the boys' father had made a mistake and mixed up the bodies of his children—burying the good son at the end of Cry Baby Lane and the evil one in the cemetery. Meaning those ghostly wails were actually the good twin crying out for help. But the teens realized the error too late: The evil twin had already been summoned and quickly began possessing the local townspeople.

MOVIE OR MYTH?

Parents were appalled that such dark content ever made it onto the family-friendly network, or so the story goes, and after airing the film once the Saturday before Halloween in 2000, Nickelodeon promptly scrubbed it from existence. But with no video evidence of it online for years, some people questioned whether Cry Baby Lane had ever really existed in the first place.

“Okay, so this story sounds completely fake, Nick would NEVER air this on TV,” one Kongregate forum poster said in September 2011. “And why would this be made knowing it’s for kids? This story just sounds too fake …”

While the folklore surrounding the film may not be 100 percent factual, Nickelodeon quickly confirmed that the “lost” Halloween movie was very real, and that it did indeed contained all the rumored twisted elements that have made it into a legend.

Before Cry Baby Lane was a blip in Nick’s primetime schedule, it was nearly a $100 million theatrical release. Peter Lauer, who had previously directed episodes of the Nick shows The Secret World of Alex Mack and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, co-wrote the screenplay with KaBlam! co-creator Robert Mittenthal. Cry Baby Lane, which would eventually spawn urban legends of its own, was inspired by a local ghost story Lauer heard growing up in Ohio. “There was a haunted farmhouse, and if you went up there at midnight, you could hear a baby crying and it’d make your high school girlfriend scared,” he told The Daily.

BIG SCARES ON A SMALL BUDGET

Despite Nickelodeon’s well-meaning intentions, parent company Paramount wasn’t keen on the idea of turning the screenplay into a feature film. The script was forgotten for about a year, until Nick got in touch with Lauer about producing Cry Baby Lane—only this time as a $800,000 made-for-TV movie. The director gladly signed on.

Even with the now-meager budget, Cry Baby Lane maintained many of the same elements of a much larger picture. In a bid to generate more publicity around the project, Nickelodeon cast Oscar nominee Frank Langella as the local undertaker (a role Lauer had originally wanted Tom Waits to play). All the biggest set pieces from the screenplay were kept intact, and as a result, the crew had no money left to do any extra filming.

Only two scenes from the movie ended up getting cut—one that alluded to skinny dipping and another that depicted an old man’s head fused onto the body of a baby in a cemetery. The story of a father performing amateur surgery on the corpses of his sons, however, made it into the final film.

The truth of what happened after Cry Baby Lane premiered on October 28, 2000 has been muddied over the years. In most retellings, Nickelodeon received an "unprecedented number" of complaints about the film and responded by sealing it away in its vault and acting like the whole thing never happened. But if that version of events is true, Nick has never acknowledged it.

Even Lauer wasn’t aware of any backlash from parents concerned about the potentially scarring effects of the film until The Daily made him aware of the rumors years later. “All I know is that they aired it once,” he told the paper. “I just assumed they didn’t show it again because they didn’t like it! I did it, I thought it failed, and I moved on.”

But the idea that the movie was pulled from airwaves for being too scary for kids isn’t so far-fetched. Though Cry Baby Lane never shows the conjoined twins being sawed apart on screen, it does pair the already-unsettling story with creepy images of writhing worms, broken glass, and animal skulls. This opening sequence, combined with the spooky, empty-eyed victims of possession that appear later, and multiple scenes where a child gets swallowed by a grave, may have made the film slightly more intense than the average episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?

IMPERFECT TIMING

Cry Baby Lane premiered at a strange time in internet history: Too early for pirated copies to immediately spring up online yet late enough for it to grow into a web-fueled folktale. The fervor surrounding the film peaked in 2011, when a viral Reddit thread about Cry Baby Lane caught the attention of one user claiming to have the so-called “lost” film recorded on VHS. He later uploaded the tape for the world to view and suddenly the lost movie was lost no longer.

News of the unearthed movie made waves across the web, and instead of staying quiet and waiting for the story to die down, Nickelodeon decided to get in on the hype. That Halloween, Nick aired Cry Baby Lane for the first time in over a decade. Regardless of whether the movie had previously been banned or merely forgotten, the network used the mystery surrounding its origins to their PR advantage.

“We tried to freak people out with it,” a Nick employee who worked at The 90s Are All That (now The Splat), the programming block that resurrected Cry Baby Lane (and who wished to remain anonymous) said of the promotional campaign for the event. “They were creepy and a little glitchy. We were like, ‘This never aired because it was too scary and we’re going to air it now.’”

Cry Baby Lane now makes regular appearances on Nickelodeon’s '90s block around Halloween, which likely means Nick hasn’t received enough complaints to warrant locking it back in the vault. And during less spooky times of the year, nostalgic horror fans can find the full movie on YouTube.

The mystery surrounding Cry Baby Lane’s existence may have been solved, but the urban legend of the movie that was “too scary for kids’ TV” persists—even at the network that produced it.

“People who were definitely working at Nickelodeon in 2000, but didn’t necessarily work on [Cry Baby Lane] were like, ‘Yeah I heard about it, I remember it being a thing,'" the Nick employee says. “It’s sort of like its own legend within the company.”

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