Somme Bombardment Begins

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 241st installment in the series. 

June 24, 1916: Somme Bombardment Begins

Britain and France had agreed to mount a major offensive on the River Somme as far back as December 1915, but the timing remained vague, in part due to Douglas Haig’s replacement of Sir John French as overall commander of the British Expeditionary Force around the same time, with further confusion generated by unexpected events including the Easter Rising in April and the  death of War Secretary Lord Kitchener in early June. 

But as spring gave way to summer and the German assault on Verdun continued, mounting French desperation left the British little choice but to commit: following the French failure to retake Fort Douaumont, on May 26 French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre warned the British that the French Army would “cease to exist” if they delayed much longer. Then on June 11, following the German conquest of Fort Vaux, Philippe Pétain, the savior of Verdun, asked Joffre to urge the British to move up the date for their attack. Finally, as the Germans unleashed a new attack even closer to Verdun in late June (see below), in an unusual deviation from the usual civil-military protocol French Premier Aristide Briand personally urged Haig to act swiftly, warning of dire consequences for their alliance if the British failed to attack.

Preparations for the massive Anglo-French assault on the Somme had been underway for months, and went forward on an awesome scale, reflecting the Allies’ hopes that the “big push” would deliver a decisive blow to the German military and maybe even end the war. Most of the work was focused on equipping the area around the Somme with infrastructure to support the British Fourth Army, numbering 400,000 men and 100,000 horses, all of whom had to be supplied with food, water, and ammunition. The British had also accumulated over 1,500 artillery pieces to deliver one of the heaviest bombardments in history, requiring millions of shells to break up the enemy’s defenses. These figures don’t even count the contribution from the neighboring French Sixth Army, which would carry out a simultaneous push to the south. 

In the first half of 1916 the British and French built two new railroads connecting the supply hub at Albert and the Somme, later complemented by dozens of new narrow-gauge “trench railways” connecting the bigger rail hubs to supply depots near the front. The Allies also repaired roads and bridges, erected vast camps with tents and barracks for hundreds of thousands of men, dug new wells and laid out dozens of miles of water pipelines, and built electric generators and a network of hundreds of miles of telephone wire to serve as a nervous system connecting it all.  Edward Liveing, a British subaltern, recalled the final weeks before the assault: 

The roads were packed with traffic. Column after column of lorries came pounding along, bearing their freight of shells, trench-mortar bombs, wire, stakes, sandbags, pipes, and a thousand other articles essential for the offensive, so that great dumps of explosives and other material arose in the green wayside places. Staff cars and signallers on motor-bikes went busily on their way… Horse transport and new batteries hurried to their destinations. “Caterpillars” rumbled up, towing the heavier guns. Infantrymen and sappers marched to their tasks round and about the line. Roads were repaired, telephone wires placed deep in the ground, trees felled for dug-outs and gun emplacements, water-pipes laid up to the trenches ready to be extended across conquered territory, while small-gauge and large-gauge railways seemed to spring to being in the night.

However the sheer scale of the preparations also meant there was no chance of surprise, as the Germans were bound to see these efforts and draw the obvious conclusion. On that note Lieutenant Own William Steele, a Canadians soldier from Newfoundland serving in the BEF, wrote in his diary on June 21, 1916: 

The Hun certainly appears to be expecting our visit, for they are, according to reports all along the front, hard at work. There is an immense amount of traffic everywhere. Opposite our own particular position, he is seen working by day and night… Only last night, he could be plainly heard strengthening his wire work, and even adding to it, etc. 

On paper at least, it shouldn’t have mattered that Germans knew what was coming, because the plan was simply to annihilate them with a “creeping barrage” of artillery and the explosion of nineteen giant mines tunneled under the German positions – and in truth, even the Germans were surprised by the unparalleled ferocity of the Allied attack. But British planners didn’t reckon with German engineering skill, which allowed tens of thousands of German troops to wait out the bombardment in deep concrete dugouts burrowed 40 feet underground; the Germans also built a second and third line of trenches for defense in depth. Furthermore bad weather prevented British planes from directing artillery fire against German artillery and strongholds. 

Nonetheless the initial bombardment, which began on June 24 – a full a week before the infantry attack on July 1 (delayed from June 28) – was by all accounts an awe-inspiring and terrifying spectacle, as a thousand British guns saturated the German trenches with over 1.7 million shells in eight days. Like the German maelstrom at Verdun, the rumbling of the great guns was heard over a hundred miles away, and was even said to be audible in London when the winds were favorable. 

Many observers compared the incredible downpour of steel to natural phenomena. Stanley Spencer, an officer with the Royal Fusiliers stationed further north on the Western Front, recalled: 

… night and morning, we hear the peculiar roll and thunder of hundreds of guns farther south in preparation for the Somme offensive. The sky was continuously lighted up by innumerable flashes, the earth shook and the air seemed to quiver with the restless rumbling and muttering that constantly rose and fell, and rose and fell again, like the rising, breaking, and subsiding of enormous waves. 

The shelling continued relentlessly through the night into day and then night again, when the dark sky turned into a nightmarish carnival of blinking, stuttering lights. Frederick Palmer, an American war correspondent, left a vivid description of the preparatory bombardment at night:

After dark the scene from a hill, as you rode toward the horizon of flashes, was one of incredible grandeur. Behind you, as you looked toward the German lines, was the blanket of night pierced and slashed by the flashes of gun blasts; overhead the bloodcurdling, hoarse sweep of their projectiles; and beyond the darkness had been turned into a chaotic, uncanny day by the jumping, leaping, spreading blaze of explosives which made all objects on the landscape stand out in flickering silhouette. Spurts of flame from the great shells rose out of the bowels of the earth, softening with their glow the sharp, concentrated, vicious snaps of light from shrapnel. Little flashes played among big flashes and flashes laid over flashes shingle fashion in a riot of lurid competition, while along the line of the German trenches at some places lay a haze of shimmering flame from the rapid fire of the trench mortars. 

Incredibly enough, men from the artillery crews were apparently able to rest during the shelling, according to Palmer, who noted that in many places the guns seemed to fire in shifts: 

It seemed that all the guns in the world must be firing as you listened from a distance, although when you came into the area where the guns were in tiers behind the cover of a favorable slope you found that many were silent. The men of one battery might be asleep while its neighbor was sending shells with a one-two-three deliberation. Any sleep or rest that the men got must be there in the midst of this crashing babel from steel throats. 

Palmer also noted the stupendous cost of the bombardment:

The flow of ammunition for all came up steadily, its expenditure regulated on charts by officers who kept watch for extravagance and aimed to make every shell count. A fortune was being fired away every hour; a sum which would send a youth for a year to college or bring up a child went into a single large shell which might not have the luck to kill one human being as excuse for its existence; an endowment for a maternity hospital was represented in a day’s belch of destruction from a single acre of trodden wheat land. 

The effect on the German troops subjected to this shelling was predictable enough, as they were forced to remain in their cramped concrete dugouts day and night for eight days, often cut off from supplies and unable to sleep amid the explosions pounding the earth above them. Above all, they wondered when the other shoe would drop. The German private Eversmann of the 26th Reserve Division wrote in his diary on June 26:

The barrage has now lasted thirty-six hours. How long will it go on? Nine o’clock: a short pause of which we avail ourselves to bring up coffee, each man got a portion of bread. Ten o’clock: veritable drum fire. In twelve hours shelling they estimate that 60,000 shells have fallen on our battalion sector. Every communication with the rear has been cut, only the telephone is working. When will they attack – tomorrow or the day after? Who knows?

However the important thing from the German soldiers’ personal perspective – and from a strategic perspective as well – was that most of them were still alive as the British infantry prepared to attack on July 1. An officer in the 26th Reserve Division, Lieutenant Cassel, noted with satisfaction: “On the whole we had very few casualties: some sentries were wounded and in one dugout that was partly squashed there were some deaths and seriously wounded. But the company on the whole, and my platoon in particular, kept its battle strength, thanks to the superior quality of our construction in the position.”

The failure of the bombardment, compounded by a number of mistakes on the day of the attack, would result in one of the worst debacles of the war – making July 1 the bloodiest day in British history.

Germans Unleash Phosgene Gas At Verdun 

On June 22, 1916 the Germans unleashed a terrible new chemical weapon, phosgene gas, as part of another massive assault intended to finally capture the hills above the Meuse overlooking the citadel of Verdun – their main objective during the months-long battle, which would force the French to abandon Verdun or send untold numbers of men to their deaths in an effort to eject the Germans. In the end, the Germans achieved neither aim – but only after a nightmarish struggle for Fort Souville, one of the last French strongholds protecting the citadel of Verdun. 

The shells containing phosgene, called “Green Cross” gas by German soldiers because of the special markings on the shells, began falling on the evening of June 22, and soon thousands of men were screaming and gasping for breath – their panic only deepening as they discovered that their gas masks didn’t protect them from the new weapon, developed by German chemists for exactly that purpose. Men and horses died by the scores, with many of the former supposedly turning a shocking green color.

The German gas attack targeted French artillery all along the line, forcing gun crews to flee and so leaving the infantry in the trenches unprotected. At 5 a.m. the German infantry advanced in dense masses, soon overrunning French defensive works and entering the village of Fleury – more than half way to Fort Souville. By now, however, the phosgene gas was starting to dissipate and French gun crews were returning to their positions. As the fighting continued Joffre sent four fresh divisions to shore up the defenses before Verdun. The German attack had been blunted – but just barely.

For ordinary soldiers on both sides, conditions at Verdun somehow become even worse. Henri Desegneaux, a French officer, described the German gas attack in his diary entry on June 22: 

At 9 p.m. an avalanche of fire bursts on the ridge, the relief has to be delayed, it would be impossible to pass. Is it an attack? There is gas as well as shells, we can’t breathe and are forced to put on our masks… My company is placed in one line, without any trench, in shell craters. It’s a plateau, swept continuously by machine-gunfire and flares… The terrain is littered with corpses! What an advance! It’s dark, one feels something soft beneath one’s feet, it’s a stomach. One falls down flat and it’s a corpse.

Amid continuing fighting, Desegneaux wrote on June 26: 

Our 220 mortars bombard Thiaumont: we must recapture some terrain to give ourselves some room and to drive the enemy back in its advance on Fleury. We attack incessantly. It’s four days since we have been in the front line and the relieving troops have been annihilated this morning during the attacks. Rain replaces the sun; filthy mud. We can’t sit down any more. We are covered in slime and yet we have to lie flat. I haven’t washed for ten days, my beard is growing. I am unrecognizable, frighteningly dirty.

In a later diary entry Desegneaux described one of the most awful, and tragically common, scenarios of the war: grievously wounded men dying slowly in front of their comrades because no stretcher bearers could make it to the frontline positions under heavy fire. On June 30, 1916 he wrote: 

Numb and dazed, without saying a word, and with our hearts pounding, we await the shell that will destroy us. The wounded are increasing in numbers around us. These poor devils not knowing where to go come to us, believing that they will be helped. What can we do? There are clouds of smoke, the air is unbreathable. There’s death everywhere. At our feet, the wounded groan in a pool of blood… One, a machine-gunner, has been blinded, with one eye hanging out of its socket and the other torn out: in addition he has lost a leg. The second has no face, an arm blown off, and a horrible wound in the stomach. Moaning and suffering atrociously one begs me, ‘Lieutenant, don’t let me die, Lieutenant, I’m suffering, help me.’ The other, perhaps more gravely wounded and nearer to death, implores me to kill him with these words, ‘Lieutenant, if you don’t want to, give me the revolver!’ Frightful, terrible moments, while the cannons harry us and we are splattered with mud and earth by the shells. For hours, these groans and supplications continue until, at 6 p.m., they die before our eyes without anyone being able to help them. 

Not long afterwards an anonymous soldier from the French 65th Division, stationed on the west bank of the Meuse, painted a similar picture in a letter home: 

Anyone who has not seen these fields of carnage will never be able to imagine it. When one arrives here the shells are raining down everywhere with each step one takes but in spite of this it is necessary for everyone to go forward. One has to go out of one’s way not to pass over a corpse lying at the bottom of the communication trench. Farther on, there are many wounded to tend, others who are carried back on stretchers to the rear. Some are screaming, others are pleading. One sees some who don't have legs, others without any heads, who have been left for several weeks on the ground...

See the previous installment or all entries.

25 Most Extreme Actor Transformations for Movies

Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney in Adam McKay's Vice (2018)
Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney in Adam McKay's Vice (2018)
Greig Fraser, Annapurna Pictures

When an actor is critically acclaimed for their work, it's not just the talent people are looking at. It's the dedication that truly drives the star to dive deep into their character and persuade us as viewers of their story. While some are more convincing than others, the best actors frequently go to dangerous extremes to craft as authentic a performance as possible. Sometimes this means undergoing unbelievable transformations, as Christian Bale recently did to inhabit the role of Dick Cheney in Adam McKay's upcoming Vice—and not for the first time. Here are 25 of the most extreme actor transformations.

1. CHRISTIAN BALE // THE MACHINIST (2004)

Christian Bale's most extreme transformation is hands down for his performance in The Machinist. The Method actor played the part of an industrial worker who hadn't slept in a year, and truly looked worse than that. Bale lost 63 pounds in four months, thanks to eating only one can of tuna or one apple a day.

2. CHARLIZE THERON // MONSTER (2003)

In the role that proved Charlize Theron was more than just a pretty face, the actress played real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, completely transforming her appearance. Besides her facial differences,Theron gained 30 pounds for the part, by mostly eating donuts and other junk. Her performance earned her an Oscar. It wasn't the last time Theron transformed her body for a role; she gained 50 pounds to play a mom with post-partum depression for this year's Tully.

3. JARED LETO // DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

To play a transgender person living with HIV in Dallas Buyers Club, Jared Leto basically stopped eating—and dropped down to 116 pounds. "I think the role demanded that commitment," Leto said of the extreme diet plan. "It was about how does that affect how I walk, how I talked, who I am, how I feel. You know, you feel very fragile and delicate and unsafe." He ended up winning an Oscar for his performance.

4. TOM HARDY // BRONSON (2008)

To play the real-life British criminal Charles Bronson, Tom Hardy put on 42 pounds for Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson. He reportedly did so with the help of an ex-Marine, who motivated and trained him. Hardy said he ate mostly chicken, rice, chocolate, and pizza while training, gaining about seven pounds a week.

5. MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY // DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

Alongside co-star Jared Leto, Matthew McConaughey had to drop some serious weight for his role as the real-life HIV-positive Ron Woodrooff in Dallas Buyers Club. Ultimately, he dropped 38 pounds by dieting and eating in small quantities. McConaughey went on to win an Oscar for his performance.

6. ROBERT DE NIRO // RAGING BULL (1980)

For one of his most iconic roles ever, Robert De Niro played real-life boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, and won an Oscar for his performance. In order to play this part, the actor got extremely buffed up through a grueling training routine with the actual LaMotta. Then, to play the boxer in later years, De Niro put on 60 pounds. Director Martin Scorsese was said to have only been able to shoot the actor for short periods of time in the later parts of filming, due to his struggle to breathe and general decline in health.

7. MICHAEL FASSBENDER // HUNGER (2008)

To take on the role of real-life activist Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's Hunger, Michael Fassbender lost more than 40 pounds. Sands participated in the 1981 Irish hunger strike, and ultimately died doing so. For the role, Fassbender restricted himself to a 600-calorie-day diet, along with exercising.

8. 50 CENT // ALL THINGS FALL APART (2011)

To play a cancer patient in All Things Fall Apart, rapper 50 Cent lost his muscular frame by dropping 54 pounds. His method involved a liquid diet and running on the treadmill for three hours a day. “I had so much muscle on me that it was hard for me to lose definition even as I got lighter and slimmer," he said of preparing for the role. "I started running to suppress my appetite. Towards the end it was really difficult."

9. JARED LETO // CHAPTER 27 (2007)

In order to play Mark David Chapman, the man who assassinated John Lennon, Jared Leto had to gain nearly 70 pounds. By eating a lot of ice cream and other junk food, the actor put on 67 pounds, and ultimately developed gout, making it painful for him to simply walk.

10. ANNE HATHAWAY // LES MISÉRABLES (2012)

Anne Hathaway was already thin when she landed the iconic role as Fantine, a factory worker-turned-prostitute in Les Misérables. Still, she ended up losing 25 pounds for the part, claiming to have eaten two small squares of oatmeal paste a day. For the shoot's final 13 days, she basically stopped eating altogether. Though she only logged 15 minutes of screen time despite the film's whopping 158-minute runtime, Hathaway won an Oscar for the role

11. CHRIS PRATT // GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

Chris Pratt's weight has fluctuated over the years, from his heftier Parks and Recreation look to his extremely ripped figure in Guardians of the Galaxy. For the Marvel role, Pratt lost 60 pounds in six months with intensive workouts and a diet change, including lots of water. "I was peeing all day long, every day," Pratt told Men's Journal. "That part was a nightmare,”

12. CHRISTIAN BALE // AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

Christian Bale is known for his incredible transformations for roles. For American Hustle, he gained 43 pounds to play a conman; he relied on junk food to reach his "goal" weight. His performance earned him an Oscar nomination.

13. ROONEY MARA // THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)

​In order to play the iconic role of Stieg Larsson's antihero Lisbeth Salander, Rooney Mara truly transformed her look for David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The normally innocent-looking actress got her lip, eyebrow, nose, and nipple pierced, bleached her eyebrows, chopped off her hair. Mara was nominated for an Oscar for her performance.

14. MATT DAMON // COURAGE UNDER FIRE (1996)

In his breakout role, Matt Damon lost over 50 pounds in three months to play a heroin addict in Courage Under Fire. His diet consisted of chicken, egg whites, broccoli, and a baked potato everyday, along with running 13 miles daily, which resulted in him weighing only 137 pounds during filming. “I went too far," Damon once said of his extreme diet. "I got sick and I wouldn't do that again because it was just too much."

15. TOM HANKS // CAST AWAY (2000)

To prepare for his Oscar-nominated role in Cast Away, Tom Hanks put on 40 pounds to bulk up for the first half of the film. Once his character was stranded on the island, Hanks then had to lose the weight he had gained—and then some—for a 55-pound weight loss. (When it came time for Matthew McConaughey to lose weight for Dallas Buyers Club, he called Hanks for advice.)

16. JAKE GYLLENHAAL // NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)

Jake Gyllenhaal was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as a reporter in Nightcrawler.
The actor dropped around 20 pounds for the film by basically starving himself to get into the mindset of his character, Lou. "I knew that Lou was literally and figuratively hungry, so I got into the mode where I was always a bit hungry," the actor revealed.

17. NATALIE PORTMAN // BLACK SWAN (2010)

To play a troubled ballerina in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, Natalie Portman ate a few hundred calories a day, underwent a grueling training schedule, and eventually dropped 20 pounds. Portman went on to win an Oscar for her performance.

18. TOM HANKS // PHILADELPHIA (1993)

To portray a gay man with HIV in his Oscar-winning role in Philadelphia, Tom Hanks shaved his head and lost 35 pounds. His fragile and sickly look only added to his amazing performance.

19. HILARY SWANK // BOYS DON'T CRY (1999)

For her Oscar-winning role as Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was killed in 1993 as the result of a hate crime, Hilary Swank underwent a dramatic transformation. Not only did she play a male, but she literally lived as a man for a month to prepare. This included binding her chest and using socks as a prosthetic penis. She also lost weight in order to maintain a more masculine figure. Kimberly Peirce, the film's director, spent more than two years searching for an actress who could play the role; Swank won an Oscar for the role.

20. CHRIS HEMSWORTH // IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015)

Known best for playing the jacked Thor in the Marvel films, Chris Hemsworth had to get seriously skinny for his leading role in In the Heart of the Sea. In order to do this, the actor dropped 33 pounds in just four weeks, which he said took a toll on both his body and his mind. “In order to do it justice, the story, we had to suffer in some way and we did,” he told People. “In other words, not a whole lot of acting was required. We were desperate.” 

21. EMILE HIRSCH // INTO THE WILD (2007)

To play the late Christopher McCandless, Emile Hirsch and director Sean Penn decided that the actor should embark journey similar to the real-life traveler he was playing for Into the Wild. McCandless's experience through North America to Alaska caused him to lose a dramatic amount of weight before eventually passing away in the wild. Hirsch dropped 40 pounds by not drinking, cutting out sugar, and running five miles a day. “It took more willpower to lose that weight than to do anything I've ever done in my entire life,” Hirsch told USA Today of his transformation.

22. TOM CRUISE // TROPIC THUNDER (2008)

Tom Cruise had the help of prosthetics for his role in Tropic Thunder, but the actor really transformed his whole image a bit with this role.

23. CAMERON DIAZ // BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)

With her normal blonde locks transformed into a frizzy, red mess, Cameron Diaz was practically unrecognizable as the wife of a puppeteer (John Cusack) in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich.

24. RUSSELL CROWE // THE INSIDER (1999)

Russell Crowe put on 35 pounds, shaved back his hairline, bleached his hair, and had liver spots and wrinkles applied with makeup to age him 20 years for his part in Michael Mann's The Insider—a role that earned Crowe went an Academy Award nomination.

25. EDDIE MURPHY // COMING TO AMERICA (1988)

In addition to his starring role as Prince Akeem in John Landis's Coming to America, Eddie Murphy also played the role of Saul, an old, white, Jewish man who hung out with the other characters at the barbershop. This role led Murphy to go on and play multiple characters in other films.

Daniel Radcliffe Says Kids No Longer Recognize Him as Harry Potter

John Sciulli, Getty Images for Turner
John Sciulli, Getty Images for Turner

Take a deep breath. If you're standing, sit down. Relax and find your happy place. Now try your best to stay there while I remind you that the first Harry Potter movie came out in 2001 and the last of the core films was released seven years ago. It's been so long, in fact, that series star Daniel Radcliffe—who made his debut in the role at age 11—will turn 30 next summer.

Apparently that separation of time has caused Radcliffe to lose some of his fame among the younger generation, as ​he discussed on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "I do have a thing sometimes where I meet kids now and their parents will bring them up to me and they'll be like, '​this is Harry Potter' and the kids will be like 'No it's not,'" Radcliffe said.

In the same interview, Radcliffe elaborated on what being a generational icon has meant to him. "It is very strange but also genuinely lovely when somebody comes up and says, '​You were a huge part of my childhood.' For me The Simpsons was a massive thing and the idea that I could occupy a similar place in someone's else life is so crazy and wonderful," he shared.

"I always say I'm incredibly lucky to have got famous with Harry Potter because it is a genuinely beloved thing," he added.

Radcliffe is currently starring in the Broadway production of The Lifespan of a Fact.

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