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French Fail To Retake Fort Douaumont

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 236th installment in the series.

May 22-25, 1916: French Fail To Retake Fort Douaumont 

Following the German onslaught against Verdun in February 1916, the defense of the symbolic fortress town was organized by general Philippe Petain, commander of the French Second Army, who won fame for holding off the first waves of the attack, implementing a system of rotating deployments to keep defenders (relatively) fresh, and creating the continuous truck convoy which kept the French divisions around Verdun supplied with weapons, ammunition, and food.

Even more importantly, Petain – a dour pessimist who’d quickly realized the futility of infantry assaults again entrenched defenders – avoided falling into the trap set by German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who hoped to wear France out through sheer attrition. Where Falkenhayn expected the French to fling every last man into the fight to save Verdun, Petain avoided sending his troops against strong German defensive positions whenever possible, was willing to cede small amounts of ground when necessary, and relied heavily on artillery to make the enemy pay for every square foot of captured ground (thus turning the tables on Falkenhayn, who’d hoped to lure the French into counterattacks and blow them away with artillery).

Between this and German commanders’ over-eager advances, what was supposed to be a battle of attrition for the French alone ended up being equally costly for the Germans, prompting the commander of the German Fifth Army, Crown Prince Frederick Wilhelm, to privately advise Falkenhayn that the attack had failed and should be called off on April 21, 1916. In short, the French defense of Verdun appeared to be successful. 

However, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre wasn’t satisfied with mere defense: given Verdun’s symbolic importance, the German gains had to be reversed through systematic counterattacks, even at great cost. In other words, he was prepared to abandon Petain’s hard-fought defensive posture, thus playing into Falkenhayn’s hands exactly as the latter hoped. And Joffre had the perfect commander to launch the glorious bloodletting: General Robert Nivelle, a cocky French artillery officer who’d made his name helping defeat the German offensive of 1914 at the Marne and Aisne. Nivelle was supported by the commander of the 5th Division, General Charles Mangin – a committed acolyte of the cult of the attack, who exuded confidence that the right combination of firepower and French bravery could dislodge the Germans from their positions north of Verdun. 

Of course Joffre couldn’t just cashier a successful officer like Petain (as he had literally hundreds of other lesser lights) so instead he decided to kick him upstairs. On May 1, 1916 Joffre promoted Petain to command of Army Group Center, giving him responsibility for a large stretch of the Western Front besides Verdun, while Nivelle was promoted to command the Second Army. The stage was set for the French to switch from defense to offense.

While the Germans remained focused on the incredibly fierce struggle for the strategic hills Cote 304 and Mort Homme (the appropriately named “Dead Man”) on the west bank of the Meuse, Nivelle and Mangin planned to strike a blow at the very center of the German line by recapturing Fort Douaumont, lost with scarcely a shot fired in the first days of the attack on Verdun, now a safe haven, communications hub and clearing house for German troops on the way to the trenches. They were understandably encouraged by belated news of the disastrous explosions and fire that killed 650 German soldiers at Fort Douaumont, concluding that these had probably damaged the fort’s defenses as well. 

However the Germans quickly repaired the damage with their typical efficiency, and then – alerted to the coming attack by intelligence reports – buttressed the garrison with reinforcements. Meanwhile the French artillery preparation (which lasted five days; above, the French bombardment) was frustrated by pre-war French engineering skill, making little impression on a roof composed of thirty feet of soil over eight feet of concrete, although several turrets, entrances, and a power generator were destroyed. 

Click to enlarge

When the French emerged from their positions to attack, German artillery in the trenches around Douaumont opened up with ferocious accuracy, wiping out entire battalions before they reached the fort. Nonetheless one French regiment, the 129th, managed to storm the roof of the structure, and a small number of French troops actually managed to penetrate the fort through a hole left by a lucky French shot, reaching the the outer tunnels and even glimpsing the interior of the fort itself before being swiftly expelled. 

The French set up a machine gun on the roof of the fort and mowed down scores of German (counter)-attackers emerging from the fort’s interior, but their own losses were astronomical, amounting to almost half the regiment by the end of the first day. One anonymous French observer at Douaumont noted the lunatic ferocity of the fighting, and its effect on the men: 

Even the wounded refuse to abandon the struggle.  As though possessed by devils, they fight on until they fall senseless from loss of blood.  A surgeon in a front-line post told me that, in a redoubt at the south part of the fort, of 200 French dead, fully half had more than two wounds.  Those he was able to treat seemed utterly insane.  They kept shouting war cries and their eyes blazed, and, strangest of all, they appeared indifferent to pain. At one moment anaesthetics ran out owing to the impossibility of bringing forward fresh supplies through the bombardment.  Arms, even legs, were amputated without a groan, and even afterward the men seemed not to have felt the shock.  They asked for a cigarette or inquired how the battle was going.

Worse still, the French troops on the fort’s roof were cut off from reinforcements and resupplies by German artillery, meaning it was only a matter of time before they ran out of ammunition and succumbed as well. By May 24 a German trench mortar wiped out the French machine gun, and the arrival of the Bavarian 1st and 2nd Divisions as reinforcements on the German side on May 25 spelled the end of the venture.

Thus the attack by the French 5th Division against Fort Douaumont ended in total defeat. The total cost from May 22-25 was 6,400 French casualties, including dead, wounded, missing and prisoners, or almost half the strength of the 5th Division, now so battered it could barely hold its own position in the French defensive line. 

Meanwhile fighting continued along the entire Verdun front (above, newsreel footage of Verdun) and especially on the west bank of the Meuse, where the French and Germans were still battling for control of Cote (Hill) 304. One eyewitness, the French soldier Louis Barthas, described the shocking scenes amid nonstop fighting at Cote 304: 

As day broke, I looked out upon this famous, nameless hill. Our trench lay at the foot of it. For several months the hill had been disputed as if it had diamond mines on its slopes. Alas, all it contained now were thousands of shredded, pulverized corpses. Nothing distinguished it from neighboring hills. It seemed to have been partly wooded at one time, but no trace of vegetation remains. The convulsed, overturned earth offered nothing but a spectacle of devastation. All day long we stayed close to the ground, huddled in this covered trench, suffering from heat and lack of air. 

Barthas later saw the remnants of a French regiment which had been wiped out on Cote 304 not long before in the “Rascas trench”: 

There, human flesh had been shredded, torn to bits. At places where the earth was soaked with blood, swarms of flies swirled and eddied. You couldn’t really see corpses, but you knew where they were, hidden in shell holes with a layer of dirt on top of them, from the wafting smells of rotten flesh. There was all sorts of debris everywhere: broken rifles; gutted packs from which spilled out pages of tenderly written letters and other carefully guarded souvenirs from home, and which the wind scattered; crushed canteens, shredded musette bags – all labeled 125th Regiment. 

An anonymous French lieutenant painted a similar picture of conditions at Verdun: 

We all carried the smell of dead bodies with us. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank… Everything we touched smelled of decomposition due to the fact that the earth surrounding us was packed with dead bodies… you could never get rid of the horrible stench. If we were on leave and we were having a drink somewhere, it would only last a few minutes before the people at the table beside us would stand up and leave. It was impossible to endure the horrible stench of Verdun.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Pop Culture
The Muppets are Getting a Reboot (Again)
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

The Muppets have entertained audiences from television sets and movie screens. Now, The Hollywood Reporter reports the beloved characters are coming to your computer. Jim Henson's classic characters are being rebooted for Disney's new streaming service.

This isn't the first time Disney has attempted to repackage The Muppets for TV since acquiring the property in 2004. In 2015, a mockumentary-style show, simply titled The Muppets, premiered on ABC, but it was canceled after one season in light of underwhelming reviews. Disney is also producing a CGI update of the animated series Muppet Babies this March. Unlike that show, this upcoming series will star the original adult characters.

Disney has yet to announce a premiere date or even a premise for the new streaming show. Audiences can expect to see it sometime after the Netflix competitor launches in fall of 2019.

The Muppets will be accompanied by streaming versions of other classic Disney properties. Series based on Monsters Inc. (2001) and The Mighty Ducks (1992) as well as film reboots of The Parent Trap (1998) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) are all expected to appear exclusively on the streaming service.

[h/t The Hollywood Reporter]

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entertainment
15 Educational Facts About Old School
DreamWorks
DreamWorks

Old School starred Luke Wilson as Mitch Martin, an attorney who—after catching his girlfriend cheating, and through some real estate and bitter dean-related circumstances—becomes the leader of a not-quite-official college fraternity. Along with his fellow thirtysomething friends Bernard (Vince Vaughn) and newlywed Frank (Will Ferrell), they end up having to fight for their right to maintain their status as a party-loving frat on campus.

The film, which was released 15 years ago today, marked Vaughn’s return to major comedies and Ferrell’s first major starring role after seven years on Saturday Night Live. Here are some facts about the movie for everyone, but particularly for my boy, Blue.

1. THE IDEA ORIGINATED WITH AN AD GUY.

Writer-director Todd Phillips was talking to a friend of his from the advertising industry named Court Crandall one day. Crandall had seen and enjoyed Phillips's movie Frat House (1998) and told his director buddy, “You know what would be funny is a movie about older guys who start a fraternity of their own.” After being told by Phillips to write it, he presented Phillips with a “loose version” of the finished product.

2. SOME OF THE FRAT SHENANIGANS WERE REAL.

While Crandall received the story credit for Old School, Phillips and Scot Armstrong received the credit for writing the script. Armstrong put his own college fraternity experiences into the script. “We were in Peoria, Illinois, so it was up to us to entertain ourselves," Armstrong shared in the movie's official production notes. "A lot of ideas for Old School came from things that really happened. When it was cold, everyone would go stir crazy and it inspired some moments of brilliance. Of course, my definition of ‘brilliance' might be different from other people's.”

3. IVAN REITMAN HELPED OUT.

Ivan Reitman, director of Stripes and Ghostbusters, was an executive producer on the film. Phillips and Armstrong wrote and rewrote every day for two months at Reitman’s house, an experience Phillips described as comedy writing “boot camp.”

4. THE STUDIO DIDN’T WANT VINCE VAUGHN.

Vince Vaughn in 'Old School' (2003)
DreamWorks

It didn’t seem to make a difference to DreamWorks that Phillips and Armstrong had written the role of Bernard with Vince Vaughn in mind—the studio didn't want him. After his breakout success in Swingers, Vaughn had taken roles in dramas like the 1998 remake of Psycho. “So when Todd Phillips wanted me for Old School, the studio didn’t want me,” Vaughn told Variety in 2015. “They didn’t think I could do comedy! They said, ‘He’s a dramatic actor from smaller films.’ Todd really had to push for me.”

5. RECYCLED SHOTS OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY WERE USED.

The film was mainly shot on the Westwood campus of UCLA. The aerial shots of the fictitious Harrison University, however, were of Harvard; they had been shot for Road Trip (2000).

6. VINCE VAUGHN FANS MIGHT RECOGNIZE THE CHURCH.

In the film, Frank gets married at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, California. Vaughn and Owen Wilson were in that same church two years later for Wedding Crashers (2005).

7. WILL FERRELL SCARED MEMBERS OF A 24-HOUR GYM.

Frank’s streaking scene was shot on a city street. As Ferrell remembered it, one of the storefronts was a 24-hour gym with Stairmasters and treadmills in the window. “I was rehearsing in a robe, and all these people are in the gym, watching me. I asked one of the production assistants, ‘Shouldn’t we tell them I’m going to be naked?’ Sure enough, I dropped my robe and there were shrieks of pure horror. After the first take, nobody was at the window anymore. I took that as a sign of approval.”

8. FERRELL REALLY WAS NAKED.

Ferrell justified it by saying it showed his character falling off the wagon. “The fact that it made sense was the reason I was really into doing it, and why I was able to commit on that level," Ferrell told the BBC. "If it was just for the sake of doing a crazy shot, then I don't think it makes sense.” Still, Ferrell needed some liquid courage, and was intimidated by the presence of Snoop Dogg.

9. ROB CORDDRY WAS NOT NAKED, BUT HE STILL HAD TO SIGN AWAY HIS NUDITY RIGHTS.

Old School marked the first major film role for Rob Corddry, who at the time was best known as a correspondent for The Daily Show. He had a jewel bag around his private parts for his nude scene, but his butt made it into the final cut. He had to sign a nudity clause, which gave the film the right to use his naked image “in any part of the universe, in any form, even that which is not devised.”

10. SNOOP DOGG AGREED TO CAMEO SO HE COULD PLAY HUGGY BEAR IN STARSKY & HUTCH.

Phillips admitted to essentially bribing the hip-hop artist/actor, using Snoop Dogg’s desire to play the street informant in the modern movie adaptation of the classic TV show (which Phillips was also directing) to his advantage. “So when I went to him I said, 'I want you to do Huggy Bear,' he was really excited. And I said, 'Oh yeah, also will you do this little thing for me in Old School a little cameo?' So he kind of had to do it I think."

11. SNOOP WANTED TO HANG OUT WITH VINCE VAUGHN ON SET, BUT NOT LUKE WILSON.

Snoop Dogg in 'Old School' (2003)
Richard Foreman, Dreamworks

Vaughn and his friends accepted an invitation to hang out in Snoop Dogg’s trailer to play video games on the last day of shooting. Vaughn recalled seeing Luke Wilson later watching the news alone in his trailer; he had not been informed of the get-together.

12. WILSON WAS TEASED BY HIS CO-STARS.

Vaughn, Wilson, and Ferrell dubbed themselves “The Wolfpack”—years before Phillips directed The Hangover—because they would always make fun of each other. A particularly stinging exchange had Ferrell refer to Legally Blonde (which Wilson had starred in) as Legally Bland. Wilson said it didn’t make him feel great. Wilson retorted by telling Ferrell that "the transition from TV to the movies isn't a very easy one, so you might just want to keep one foot back in TV just in case this whole movie thing falls through!"

13. TERRY O’QUINN SCARED HIS SONS INTO THINKING THEY WERE TRIPPING.

Terry O’Quinn (who went on to play John Locke on Lost the following year) agreed to play Goldberg, uncredited, in what was a two-day job for him. He neglected to inform his sons he was in the movie, and when they saw it, one of them called their father. “I got a call from my sons one night, and they said, ‘What were you doing in Old School? We didn’t even know you were in it!’ They said, ‘We’re sitting there, and the first time we see you, it’s, like, in a reflection in a window. And when we saw it, and we both thought we were, like, tripping or something!’”

14. THE EARMUFFS WERE IMPROVISED.

Before filming, Vaughn worked with Ferrell to figure out their characters' backstories and how they knew each other; he credited that with helping him figure out who Bernard was, which led to several ad-libbed moments. “The earmuff scene where he swears in front of the kids, and then I tell the kid to earmuff, that all is off the cuff. But that stuff is a lot easier to do when you know who you are and your circumstances, and who your characters are,” Vaughn explained.

15. FERRELL AND VAUGHN DIDN’T LOVE A SCRIPT FOR A SEQUEL.

Armstrong had written Old School Dos in 2006, which saw the frat going to Spring Break. Ferrell said that he and Vaughn read the script but felt like they would just be “kind of doing the same thing again.” Wilson, on the other hand, was excited over the new script.

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