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Armageddon – The Somme

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 242nd installment in the series. 

July 1, 1916: Armageddon – The Somme 

It was the worst day in British history as measured in bloodshed, with 57,470 total casualties and 19,240 dead, mostly drawn from the cream of the patriotic British middle and working classes. An unparalleled disaster, the first day of the Somme and the 140 days of horror that followed live on in Britain’s collective psyche to this day, remembered – some argue unfairly – as the climactic agony of a generation of young men betrayed by an intellectually bankrupt elite unworthy of their devotion.

Needless to say, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Following six months of planning and preparation, the combined Anglo-French attack on both sides of the River Somme on July 1, 1916 was supposed to literally be a walkover, an annihilating blow that would shatter the German front in northern France and force the neighboring German armies to retreat, reopening the war of movement and setting the stage for final Allied victory. 

Instead it was Armageddon. 

Plan and Reality 

The German defenses at the Somme were formidable to say the least, beginning with a first line complex, about 200 yards deep, of three trenches connected by communications trenches, protected by huge fields of barbed wire and studded with strongholds or “redoubts” – self-contained mini-fortresses of concrete and earthworks protecting machine gun nests. The Germans had also constructed a second line defense several thousand yards behind the first lie, situated on the far side of a chain of low hills and therefore invisible from the Allied trenches, and were working on a third line defense located a similar distance behind that. 

Thanks to aerial reconnaissance the Allies had been able to create detailed maps of the German defenses, and the plan to penetrate them drawn up by British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig and French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre looked plausible, on paper at least. After a huge bombardment by massed artillery to break up barbed wire and flatten the German trenches, and the explosion of 19 huge mines to destroy the redoubts, British and French infantry would advance along a 25,000-yard front on both sides of the River Somme behind a “creeping barrage” of artillery fire, with the guns gradually raising their elevation to create a moving wall of explosions to protect them from German counterattacks.

Most of the burden of fighting at the Somme would fall on the British Fourth Army, as the planned French contribution was scaled down radically because of the need to defend Verdun; after the Fourth Army pierced the German defenses, the new British Reserve Army (later Fifth Army) would enter the fray to exploit the breakthrough, advancing northeast along the road connecting Albert to Bapaume before pivoting north to roll up the German defenses west of Cambrai. Threatened on their flanks, the German armies would have no choice but to retreat in disarray, creating an opening for all the Allied armies to attack and expel them from France and Belgium.

Haig and Fourth Army commander Henry Rawlinson were so confident about the artillery’s ability to wipe out German defenses that British soldiers went “over the top” with orders to advance across “No Man’s Land” at a walking pace and in close order, just a few yards apart. They were also weighed down by over 60 pounds of ammunition, food, tools, and other supplies, reflecting the expectation that they would be operating for at least several days deep behind the German lines, away from supply depots. Albert Andrews, a private in the 30th Division, listed their kit: 

I will tell here what I carried: rifle and bayonet with a pair of wire cutters attached; a shovel fastened on my back; pack containing two days’ rations, oil sheet, cardigan, jacket and mess tin; haversack containing one day’s iron rations and two Mills bombs; 150 rounds of ammunition; two extra bandoliers containing 60 rounds each, one over each shoulder; a bag of ten bombs [grenades]. 

However the German defenses were even more formidable than anyone suspected. Invisible from the air, the Germans had constructed bunkers up to 40 feet deep, reinforced with concrete and sturdy wood beams, which provided shelter for tens of thousands of German troops during the unrelenting weeklong bombardment that began on June 24. Furthermore bad weather prevented British planes from assessing damage to the German second line and directing artillery fire to German targets ahead of the advancing infantry, including new stretches of barbed wire hurriedly laid out in the night. Finally, Rawlinson’s relaxed attitude towards command, giving officers on the ground considerable leeway to adjust tactics as they saw fit, meant many ordered the creeping barrage to jump over the German first line in the optimistic belief it had already been obliterated. 

“A Hurricane of Fire” 

The British attack on the morning of July 1, 1916 began with a final bombardment that stunned observers with its fury, reinforcing the general impression that no defenders could possibly be left alive in the first German line. Geoffrey Malins, a British photographer documenting the war in photos and film, recalled the blistering fusillade: 

When I reached the section where I judged it best to fit up my camera, I gently peeped over the parapet. What a sight. Never in my life had I seen such a hurricane of fire. It was inconceivable that any living thing could exist anywhere near it. The shells were coming over so fast and furious that it seemed as if they must be touching each other on their journey through the air. 

At first glance the shelling appeared to have accomplished one of its main tasks by breaking up the new barbed wire defenses, according to Frederick Palmer, American correspondent, who described the scene near Beaumont-Hamel: “All the barbed-wire entanglements in front of the first-line trenches appeared to be cut, mangled, twisted into balls, beaten back into the earth and exhumed again, leaving only a welt of crater-spotted ground in front of the chalky contour of the first-line trenches which had been mashed and crushed out of shape.” However, as the British infantry soon discovered, in many places the explosions had simply lifted the barbed wire into the air and dropped it down again in new positions, with stretches of broken wire overlapping to create an equally impenetrable barrier. 

As one hundred thousand soldiers waited to go “over the top,” each man was left alone with his thoughts. In many cases, following a week of anxious inactivity they were simply impatient for the big moment to arrive. Edward Liveing, a British soldier in the London Regiment of the 56th Division, recalled the final minutes as the British guns pounded the German lines and the German batteries responded in kind: 

I have often tried to call to memory the intellectual, mental and nervous activity through which I passed during that hour of hellish bombardment and counter-bombardment, that last hour before we leapt out of our trenches into No Man’s Land… I had an excessive desire for the time to come when I could go ‘over the top,’ when I should be free at last from the noise of the bombardment, free from the prison of my trench, free to walk across that patch of No Man’s Land and opposing trenches till I got to my objective, or, if I did not go that far, to have my fate decided for better or for worse. I experienced, too, moments of intense fear during close bombardment. I felt that if I was blown up it would be the end of all things so far as I was concerned. The idea of after-life seemed ridiculous in the presence of such frightful destructive force. 

The British also unleashed poison gas and clouds of white smoke to serve as a screen for the advancing infantry (below). Lieutenant Adrian Consett Stephen described the British gas attack in a letter home, as well as his first ominous inkling that perhaps all was not going as planned:

For a mile stretching away from me, the trench was belching forth dense columns of white, greenish, and orange smoke. It rose curling and twisting, blotting everything from view, and then swept, a solid rampart, over the German lines. For more than an hour this continued, and I could see nothing. Sometimes the smoke was streaked with a scarlet star as a shell burst among it… It seemed impossible that men could withstand this awful onslaught… And yet a machine gun played steadily all the time from the German front line.

Finally, the huge mines under the German redoubts went up with an infernal power that reminded many observers of volcanoes erupting, the shockwaves knocking down men standing on the other side of No Man’s Land while debris was lofted almost a mile into the air, sometimes taking several minutes to descend. One aerial observer, second lieutenant Cecil Lewis, described seeing (and feeling) the largest mine – the “Lochnagar mine” under the “Schwaben Redoubt,” actually two separate mines loaded with a stupefying 60,000 pounds of high explosive – go up from a plane at 7:28 a.m. (below, an aerial view of the Lochnagar crater today): 

At Boisselle the earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up in the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet (1,200 m). There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris. A moment later came the second mine. Again the roar, the upflung machine, the strange gaunt silhouette invading the sky. Then the dust cleared and we saw the two white eyes of the craters. The barrage had lifted to the second-line trenches, the infantry were over the top, the attack had begun.

Elsewhere a photographer was able to capture a remarkable photo of the British mine beneath the German “Hawthorn Redoubt” as it detonated, sending up 45,000 pounds of ammonal high explosive and taking hundreds of German soldiers with it (below; the photographer was about half a mile away, and the soldier barely visible by the trees in the foreground provides a sense of scale). 

The infantry assault began at 7:30 a.m. with a diversionary attack to the north by the 46th and 56th Divisions of the neighboring British Third Army against a small German salient at Gommecourt, and here the British suffered their first setback, for all the reasons that would soon become apparent all along the front: the artillery preparation had been inadequate, the Germans were able to patch the barbed wire in many places, and the lack of aerial observation made it almost impossible to know whether any progress was being made. Even worse, the failure of the 46th Division to advance doomed the effort by the 56th Division in the other arm of the “pincer.” As a result barely any of the British troops reached the German front line near Gommecourt, and those who did were soon forced out by German counterattacks. 

This story would repeat itself, again and again, up and down the battlefield of the Somme. All along the front the the Germans emerged, rattled by the bombardment but largely unscathed, from their deep dugouts and quickly took up defensive positions in shell holes, along the lips of the mine craters, and in small stretches of trench that remained usable after the shelling. One German soldier, Matthaus Gerster, recalled the adrenaline-charged experience:

At 7:30 a.m. the hurricane of shells ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Our men at once clambered up the steep shafts leading from the dug-outs to daylight and ran singly or in groups to the nearest shell craters. The machine guns were pulled out of the dug-outs and hurriedly placed in position, their crews dragging the heavy ammunition boxes up the steps and out to the guns. A rough firing line was thus rapidly established… A few minutes later, when the leading British line was within one hundred yards, the rattle of machine guns and rifle fire broke out from along the whole line of craters. Some fired kneeling so as to get a better target over the broken ground, while others in the excitement of the moment, stood up regardless of their own safety to fire into the crowd of men in front of them. Red rockets sped up into the blue sky as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from the German batteries in rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines. Whole sections seemed to fall, and the rear formations, moving in closer order, quickly scattered. The advance rapidly crumbled under this hail of shell and bullets. All along the line men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing, never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony, and others less severely injured crawled to the nearest shell-hole for shelter. 

From the village of Serre to Beaumont-Hamel, after the explosion of the Hawthorn Redoubt mine mentioned above, the British 4th, 29th, and 31st Divisions had to advance across a low basin that made them perfect targets for German artillery and machine guns. Even worse, the officers had accelerated the creeping barrage on the assumption the German frontline was destroyed – again, unaware that the enemy’s deep dugouts had survived (below, wire entanglements at Beaumont-Hamel). 

Now a new threat was rapidly becoming apparent: because the British were trying to advance along such a broad front, a failure by any division to progress left its neighbors exposed to flanking fire from the Germans and counterattacks from neighboring German trenches – so even where the British succeeded in breaking into the German first line, they found themselves isolated in narrow corridors surrounded by the enemy, and were forced to retreat anyway. This proved to be the case for the 36th Division, which advanced north of the village Thiepval but then abandoned its gains, including the key Schwaben Redoubt (or what was left of it), under withering fire when the adjacent 32nd Division failed to advance. 

And still more British troops poured forward. Edward Liveing described seeing the second wave advance to meet its fate:

The scene that met my eyes as I stood on the parapet of our trench for that one second is almost indescribable. Just in front the ground was pitted by innumerable shell-holes. More holes opened suddenly every now and then. Here and there a few bodies lay about. Farther away, before our front line and in No Man's Land, lay more. In the smoke one could distinguish the second line advancing. One man after another fell down in a seemingly natural manner, and the wave melted away. In the background, where ran the remains of the German lines and wire, there was a mass of smoke, the red of the shrapnel bursting amid it. 

Soon it would be Liveing’s turn to plunge into the maelstrom, where he discovered it was almost impossible to keep track of his men amid the chaos:

As I advanced, I felt as if I was in a dream, but I had all my wits about me. We had been told to walk. Our boys, however, rushed forward with splendid impetuosity to help their comrades and smash the German resistance in the front line… I kept up a fast walking pace and tried to keep the line together. This was impossible. When we had jumped clear of the remains of our front line trench, my platoon slowly disappeared through the line stretching out. 

As the troops in subsequent lines advanced, they were greeted by the horrifying sights of No Man’s Land, where they found their own comrades lying dead and wounded by the thousands, and faced the same fate themselves, at the hands of the same German machine gunners and artillery crews. Liveing recalled his own experience, culminating in a wound that – like tens of thousands of others that day – forced him to retreat back across No Man’s Land under heavy fire: 

We were dropping into a slight valley. The shell-holes were less few, but bodies lay all over the ground, and a terrible groaning arose from all sides. At one time we seemed to be advancing in little groups. I was at the head of one for a moment or two, only to realise shortly afterwards that I was alone… I turned round again and advanced to a gap in the German wire. There was a pile of our wounded here on the German parapet… Suddenly I cursed. I had been scalded in the left hip. A shell, I thought, had blown up in a water-logged crump-hole and sprayed me with boiling water. Letting go of my rifle, I dropped forward full length on the ground. My hip began to smart unpleasantly, and I felt a curious warmth stealing down my left leg. I thought it was the boiling water that had scalded me. Certainly my breeches looked as if they were saturated with water. I did not know that they were saturated with blood… I looked around to see what was happening. In front lay some wounded; on either side of them stakes and shreds of barbed wire twisted into weird contortions by the explosions of our trench-mortar bombs. Beyond this nothing but smoke, interspersed with the red of bursting bombs and shrapnel.

Back on the German side, Gerster described the seemingly endless British attacks, each one ending in disaster:

The extended lines, though badly shaken and with many gaps, now came on all the faster. Instead of a leisurely walk they covered the ground in short rushes at the double. Within a few minutes the leading troops had reached within a stone’s throw of our front trench, and while some of us continued to fire at point-blank range, others threw hand grenades among them. The British bombers [grenade throwers] answered back, while the infantry rushed forward with fixed bayonets. The noise of battle became indescribable… Again and again the extended lines of British infantry broke against the German defence like waves against a cliff, only to be beaten back. 

Ironically the French Sixth Army, which had been assigned a supporting role in the attack because of the manpower requirements at Verdun, made much more progress to the south of the Somme, led by colonial troops from North Africa in the 1st Moroccan Division and 2nd, 3rd, and 16th Colonial Divisions. The neighboring British divisions, at the southernmost end of the British line, also fared better in their attacks near Montauban, Fricourt, and Mametz Woods. 

The Allied success in the southern half of the battlefield was due in part to hills that provided better observation points and shelter for artillery and the use of a larger number of smaller mines to disrupt longer stretches of the German trenches. These factors meant the British and French could clear German artillery more effectively before the infantry attacked, while the continuing bombardment forced the German infantry to remain in their dugouts longer before coming to the surface – giving the attackers crucial extra moments to advance. 

However the British and French still failed to penetrate to the German second line of defenses further east, meaning nowhere along the front had the Allies achieved their hoped-for breakthrough. Furthermore their advances on the southern half of the front merely made it even more urgent for the British divisions north of the Somme to catch up in order to allow the entire operation to move forward, leading to more disastrous assaults in the days to come. 

All along the front, July 1, 1916 ended in nightmarish scenes of death and destruction, with fighting continuing sporadically where Allied or German troops held out in isolated strongholds. Paul Maze, a Frenchman serving with the British Army as a translator, described the night of July 1: 

I went at night to Albert, where I knew that from some high ground I could look into La Boisselle and a wide stretch of the battle-ground. The line kept emerging from the darkness, illuminated by brilliant lights from a constant succession of soaring rockets, bursting and spreading into vivid colours, momentarily revealing quivering patches of the deep shade beyond. Our men were then bombing the craters in front of La Boisselle. Occasionally the light showed up little figures crawling over broken ground. Behind me the town of Albert was trembling with the shelling, as flashes from the guns played hide-and-seek through the beams of its gaping roofs and intermittently lit up as in daylight a white streak of the Albert-Bapaume road… Ambulances were taking away the wounded from the casualty clearing-station in Albert. Lorries were packed with the lighter casualties who waited their turn in big groups, all labeled with the nature of their wounds. Roads were crammed with marching troops and lorries. Dust was rising everywhere. Lines of cavalry horses, contentedly munching hay, covered the rolling plains as far as Amiens, hidden in the darkness. 

After a day of consolidation and (relatively) small-scale combat on July 2, the British returned to the attack on July 3, determined to push forward in the north and set the stage for the assault on the German second line, allowing the British Reserve Army to swing into action as planned. This time, unfortunately, the attacks near Ovillers and Thiepval went forward with little or no coordination, as officers mounted local attacks according to their own hastily improvised strategies. Palmer, the war correspondent, saw one of the attacks: 

The battle was not general; it raged at certain points where the Germans had anchored themselves after some recovery from the staggering blow of the first day. Beyond Fricourt the British artillery was making a crushing concentration on a clump of woods. This seemed to be the hottest place of all. I would watch it. Nothing except the blanket of shell-smoke hanging over the trees was visible for a time, unless you counted figures some distance away moving about in a sort of detached pantomime. Then a line of British infantry seemed to rise out of the pile of the carpet and I could see them moving with a drill-ground steadiness toward the edge of the woods, only to be lost to the eye in a fold of the carpet or in a changed background.

Further south Maze witnessed the continued fighting around the village of La Boisselle, which was quickly being reduced to a heap of rubble:

Through a gap between two sandbags I was shown the village, where smoke was drifting across skeletons of trees on a torn-up mound. An uneven line of sandbags, stretching across piles of bricks and remnants of houses, faced our front trench. The enemy was there, a few yards away. His presence, so near and yet unseen, made upon me an uncanny impression. The ground between our trench and the ruins beyond was merely a stretch of craters and burnt-up grass broken up by tangled wire… The dead were lying there in all conceivable attitudes, rotting in the sun. A veil of fumes from lachrymatory shells was rolling along the ground… with the heat the smell had become very trying.

Incredibly conditions were about to become even more trying, as nature turned against both attackers and defenders with the arrival of unexpected summer thunderstorms, which – once again – turned the battlefield into a quagmire and flooded trenches. Many men commented on the unusually sticky nature of the Somme mud, with its combination of clay, dust, and chalk ground up by entrenching tools and artillery. Maze described the scene as the heavens opened above them: 

The rain, falling down the shiny slopes, formed streams everywhere. Steam rose from the hot ground… the Somme dust had turned everything into liquid mud; lorries rushed along plastering everybody with it. Drenched infantry and horse-lines were out in the open – everything now looked miserable. During the next three days the rain hardly ceased. Conditions became appalling… The trenches had now crumbled down with the rain, and water rushing down the slopes had invaded every communication-trench. The mud was a soft yellow, sticky paste that clung to one’s boots and had to be kicked away at every step. 

The mud would be a perpetual fixture of the Somme, especially once summer gave way to autumn. Hugh Knyvett, an Australian who fought at the Somme some time later, portrayed it as a force of nature all its own: 

How we cursed that mud! We cursed it sleeping, we cursed it waking, we cursed it riding, we cursed it walking. We ate it and cursed; we drank it and cursed; we swallowed it and spat it; we snuffed it and wept it; it filled our nails and our ears; it caked and lined our clothing; we wallowed in it, we waded through it, we swam in it, and splashed it about – it stuck our helmets to our hair, it plastered our wounds, and there were men drowned in it. 

And still the fighting went on. On July 7, 1916 Rawlinson ordered another round of attacks on the center near Ovillers, Mametz Wood, and Contalmaison – but once again there was virtually no coordination between the commanders on the ground, leaving individual units to advance with their flanks unprotected, and over the next six days modest victories were paid for with extravagant amounts of blood. Nature also paid a heavy price, according to Private Robert Lord Crawford, who described a scene near Contalmaison in his diary entry on July 7, 1916: 

What a scene of desolation in this area of battle. One stumbles across a corpse distended by gangrene, half hidden by luxuriant flowers, and then a few yards further on a patch of land from which every vestige of vegetation has been completely burned. What is marked on a map as a wood is in reality a seared row of skeleton trees. This is the most violent and wasteful of all the invasions of nature which a bombardment involves. 

Mametz Wood and Contalmaison finally fell to the British on July 12, setting the stage for the next big push on July 14, 1916. The Battle of the Somme was just beginning. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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15 Surprising Facts About Steve Carell
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Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon

From the seven seasons he spent as the star of NBC’s The Office to leading man roles in comedy classics like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell has become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand funnymen. But he has proven his dramatic chops, too, particularly with his role as John du Pont in Foxcatcher, which earned Carell an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 2015. Even if you’ve seen all of his movies, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about the Massachusetts native, who turns 55 years old today.

1. HE THOUGHT HE WANTED TO BE A LAWYER.

Steve Carell attended Ohio’s Denison University, where he received a history degree in 1984, and had planned to move on to law school. But when it came time to apply, he found himself stumped by the first question on the application: Why do you want to be a lawyer?

“I had never considered acting as a career choice, although I’d always enjoyed it,” Carell told NJ.com in 2011. “I enjoyed hockey and singing in the choir, and I didn’t think of them as potential careers, either … But I began to realize I really loved acting, and telling stories. Reading a book, watching a movie, going to a play, it’s transporting, and very, very exciting. And to be a part of that, creating things with your imagination, whoa."

2. HE WORKED AS A MAILMAN.

Shortly before he moved to Chicago and performed with The Second City, Carell worked as a postal carrier in the tiny town of Littleton, Massachusetts. Because the post office didn’t have its own mail vehicles, Carell had to use his own car. He kept the gig for just four months, then took off for the Windy City. “And months later, I found mail under the seat of my car,” he admitted. Carell also said it was the hardest job he has ever had.

3. HE WAS HIS WIFE’S TEACHER.

No, it’s not as risqué as it sounds. Carell met his wife, Nancy Walls, through an improv class at Second City; he was the teacher, she was one of his students. “I beat around the bush [before asking her out] and said something stupid like, ‘Well, you know, if I were to ever ask someone out, it would be someone like you,’” Carell told Details of his earliest attempts at flirting. “It’s so stupid, but it was all self-protection. She was the same way: ‘If somebody like you were to ask me out, I would definitely go out with him. If there was a person like you.’” The couple married in 1995 and have appeared in several projects together.

4. THE COUPLE HAD TO BREAK UP (ON CAMERA) ON THEIR 17TH ANNIVERSARY.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For Lorene Scafaria’s underrated 2012 end-of-the-world dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Steve and Nancy played a married couple who split up when it’s announced that an asteroid heading toward Earth will obliterate the planet in three weeks. Their break-up scene happens very early on in the movie, and they ended up filming it on their 17th wedding anniversary.

“She gets to leave me right at the beginning,” Carell told Parade. “They used the take where her shoe came off in the car, and she bolted across that field with one shoe on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her run that fast. We shot the scene on our 17th anniversary. [The director] got us a cake and the crew sang ‘Happy Anniversary’ to us. It was very sweet, a very special night."

5. HE AND HIS WIFE AUDITIONED FOR SNL TOGETHER; ONLY ONE OF THEM MADE IT.

In 1995, the same year they married, both Carell and Walls auditioned for Saturday Night Live. Walls made it but Carell didn’t, which must have made for one awkward celebratory dinner. But it all turned out well in the end; Carell went on to become a household name and has hosted the show on two occasions.

6. HE WAS ONE HALF OF “THE AMBIGUOUSLY GAY DUO.”

Though he missed out on the chance to become a regular SNL cast member, there was a silver lining: He was free to say “yes” to taking a role on The Dana Carvey Show, a sketch show that SNL alum Dana Carvey created for ABC. Though it was short-lived, the show was full of amazing comedic talent; in addition to Carvey and Carell, the show featured Stephen Colbert, Bob Odenkirk, and Robert Smigel and a writers room that included Louis C.K., Charlie Kaufman, and Robert Carlock. The show marked the debut of Smigel’s recurring animated sketch, “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” which followed the adventures of Gary and Ace, who were voiced by Carell and Colbert, respectively. After the show was cancelled, Smigel brought the “Duo” over to Saturday Night Live.

7. HE OWNS A GENERAL STORE IN MASSACHUSETTS.

While many A-list stars run side businesses—restaurants, wine companies, clothing lines, etc.—the Carells' second gig is a little less glamorous. In 2009, they bought the Marshfield Hills General Store in Marshfield, Massachusetts—where they spend their summers—in order to preserve it as a local landmark. 

“The main impetus to keep it going is that not many of those places exist and I wanted this one to stay afloat,” Carell told The Patriot Ledger. “Just generally speaking, there are not that many local sort of communal places as there used to be ... I think it’s nice for people to actually go and talk and have a cup of coffee and communicate with one another."

8. HE PLAYS THE FIFE.

Yes, Carell has got some musical talent and can actually play the fife. It’s a skill he acquired early in life, and shares with several of his family members. And it came in handy when he joined a reenactment group that portrayed the 10th (North Lincoln) Regiment of Foot, a line infantry regiment with the British Army.

9. HE WAS NOT THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MICHAEL SCOTT IN THE OFFICE.

Though Michael Scott, the clueless manager of paper company Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton, Pennsylvania branch in The Office, is still probably Carell's best-known role, he wasn’t the first choice for the part. Paul Giamatti was reportedly the first choice, but he declined. Hank Azaria and Martin Short were also in the running. Bob Odenkirk was actually cast in the role because Carell was committed to another series, Come to Papa. But when that show was cancelled after just a few episodes, the role of Michael Scott was recast with Carell. (Odenkirk appeared in one of the series’s later episodes, playing a boss who was eerily similar to Carell’s Scott.)

10. WHEN CARELL LEFT THE OFFICE, THE CAST AND CREW “RETIRED” HIS NUMBER ON THE CALL SHEET.

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When Carell left The Office after seven seasons to focus on his film career, the cast and crew continued one tradition in his honor. “Steve was No. 1 on the call sheet because he was the lead of the show,” co-star Jenna Fischer told TV Guide. “And when he left, we retired his number. No one, ever since he left, was allowed to be No. 1."

11. HE WAS IN TALKS TO PLAY RON DONALD ON PARTY DOWN.

Before Party Down made its premiere on Starz with Adam Scott playing failed actor Henry Pollard, it was supposed to be an HBO series with Paul Rudd in the lead. And Rudd was pushing for Carell to play bumbling catering manager Ron Donald, as The Office didn’t get off to a great start and looked to be in danger of getting cancelled. Ultimately, HBO ended up abandoning the project, which Starz scooped up—with Scott as Pollard and Ken Marino as Ron Donald.

12. JAMES SPADER REALLY WANTED TO PLAY BRICK TAMLAND IN ANCHORMAN.

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Though it was The 40-Year-Old Virgin that turned Carell into a leading man on the big screen, his role as oddball meteorologist Brick Tamland in Anchorman brought him a lot of attention. But if James Spader had his way, Carell would never have appeared in the role at all. In a 2013 interview with Baller Status, director Adam McKay shared that before the film was even cast:

“I get a phone call and I hear that James Spader is obsessed with Brick's character. I say ‘James Spader? That is insane, will he come in and read?’ They say, ‘No, he's not going to come in and read; he's James Spader!’ James Spader and I end up talking and he called it about the Brick character. He thought it was one of the funniest character he ever read and we weren't even sure if it was going to work. He literally said, ‘I will do anything to get this role.’ Eventually, we were just like, ‘This is James Spader; he is too good for this role.’ But, he was right about how funny it was. The movie studio even questioned us and said how bizarre Brick is, and it wouldn't work. I felt bad we didn't cast James, but Carell was so good.”

Spader proved his comedic chops in 2011, when he was cast as Robert California, Michael Scott’s replacement on The Office (who quickly manages to convince the company owner to appoint him as CEO).

13. UNIVERSAL STUDIOS' EXECUTIVES WERE CONCERNED THAT CARELL WAS COMING OFF AS A SERIAL KILLER IN THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN.

Though it turned out to be one of 2005’s biggest hits, getting the tone right on Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin proved to be a fairly difficult task. At one point, executives at Universal Studios expressed their concern to Apatow that Carell might come off as a serial killer to viewers.

"There is a fine line," producer Mary Parent told the Los Angeles Times. "Men and women alike could look at him and if he's too much of a sad sack, they will think, 'Dude, get a life.’” Apatow ended up adding several lines about the fact that Carell’s character could be a serial killer.

14. HE LEARNED MAGIC FROM DAVID COPPERFIELD.

In 2013, Carell played a magician in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. In order to get the role just right, he went straight to the top: David Copperfield. The famed illusionist taught Carell and co-star Steve Buscemi a trick called “The Hangman,” and they were both sworn to secrecy. “I actually had to sign something that I would not divulge,” Carell told The Hollywood Reporter. “So that was kind of cool.”

15. HE OFFERED PRINCETON'S 2012 CLASS SOME TIPS FOR SUCCESS.

In 2012, Carell delivered a speech to Princeton University graduates—which included his niece—during Class Day. He ended his talk by offering some tips to the grads:

“I would like to leave you with a few random thoughts. Not advice per se, but some helpful hints: Show up on time. Because to be late is to show disrespect. Remember that the words 'regime' and 'regimen' are not interchangeable. Get a dog, because cats are lame. Only use a 'That's what she said' joke if you absolutely cannot resist. Never try to explain a 'That's what she said' joke to your parents. When out to eat, tip on the entire check. Do not subtract the tax first. And every once in a while, put something positive into the world. We have become so cynical these days. And by we I mean us. So do something kind, make someone laugh, and don't take yourself too seriously.”

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25 Future Stars Who Appeared on Are You Afraid of the Dark?
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Nickelodeon via YouTube

A number of future celebrities stopped by Are You Afraid of the Dark? over its seven-season run—first from 1992 to 1996, and then again from 1999 to 2000 as part of Nickelodeon's SNICK lineup. Some were members of the Midnight Society, and some were merely there to help bring the creepy campfire tales to life. Here they are, on the 25th anniversary of the show's premiere, submitted for the approval of Mental Flossers.

1. RYAN GOSLING // SEASON 5, EPISODE 3

Fresh off his stint in The Mickey Mouse Club—and well before he was Young Hercules—Ryan Gosling appeared in the 1995 episode “The Tale of Station 109.1.” He played Jamie Leary, a T-shirt and flannel-wearing kid whose younger brother, Chris, is obsessed with death. To break him of his morbid obsession, Jamie locks Chris in a hearse, cautioning him to "keep it down, or you'll wake the dead!" before he leaves him there. (Nice brother!) Comedian Gilbert Gottfried also appears in this episode as a DJ at the titular radio station.

2. NEVE CAMPBELL // SEASON 3, EPISODE 13

Future Scream queen Neve Campbell played Nonnie Walker in the 1993 episode “The Tale of the Dangerous Soup,” in which recurring villain Dr. Vink makes a dish that requires a very special ingredient: his employees’ fear.

3. AND 4. EMMANUELLE CHRIQUI AND ELISHA CUTHBERT // SEASON 5, EPISODE 12

Future Entourage star Emmanuelle Chriqui had just five roles on her resume when she played Amanda, a teenage hospital volunteer who has to contend with a shape-shifting vampire, in “The Tale of the Night Shift.” 

Happy Endings and 24 star Elisha Cuthbert had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her part in that episode, too. Series co-creator D.J. MacHale directed her in the episode, although he didn’t remember it. “There’s one scene where a nurse walks out of the room [in the hospital where a shape-shifting vampire was shacking up] and sees a little girl [who had shape-shifted from said vampire] whom she follows,” MacHale said. “And that little girl was Elisha Cuthbert. For all I know, that was the first time she was ever on camera, so that was kind of cool!” It was, in fact, Cuthbert’s first on-screen role; later, she would return to the series during its second run as Megan, a member of the Midnight Society.

5. MIA KIRSHNER // SEASON 1, EPISODE 5

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Before she starred in The Crow: City of Angels, Not Another Teen Movie, and The L Word, Mia Kirshner appeared in the 1991 episode “The Tale of the Hungry Hounds.” Kirshner played Pam Pease, a teenager who discovers her dead Aunt Dora’s horse riding jacket in a trunk in the attic … and promptly becomes possessed with Dora’s spirit.

Despite the fact that the show always begins with a campfire, this was the only episode to show a kid striking a match. “[Nickelodeon] didn’t want to teach kids how to strike matches,” MacHale told Splitsider. “They were afraid someone would burn their house down or something like that. So the campfire was always already lit when [the Midnight Society] showed up. There was one episode where someone did light a match when it slipped by Standards and Practices in an episode I directed. Mia Kirshner was the star in that episode, and in that scene, she had to light a lantern, and she didn’t know how to light a match! We practically had to fake it because she was like, ‘I’ve never done this before!’ Which I guess maybe gives credibility to Nickelodeon’s theory that we didn’t want to teach kids how to light a match.”

6. DANIEL DESANTO

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You probably recognize him as Gretchen Weiner’s kinda-sorta-boyfriend in Mean Girls, but before that, Daniel DeSanto was providing the voice of Carlos Ramon on the cartoon The Magic Schoolbus and playing Tucker, a Midnight Society member, on 65 episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? from 1992 to 2000.

7. EUGENE BYRD // SEASON 1, EPISODE 6

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Shortly after he played Eugene on The Cosby Show, Byrd booked the role of practical-joke loving Weeds in a 1992 episode, “The Tale of the Super Specs.” He buys his girlfriend, Mary Beth, a pair of weird glasses that allow her to see terrifying black-clothed beings from another dimension (who are even into playing creepy games of basketball!). Spoiler alert: The episode does not have a happy ending for Weeds and Mary Beth. Byrd would go on to star in shows like Ghostwriter, Bones, DaybreakCrossing Jordan, True Blood, and Arrow.

8. JOANNA GARCIA SWISHER

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Joanna Garcia Swisher—then just Joanna Garcia—had a few small roles on other series before she played Sam, one of the members of the Midnight Society, beginning in Are You Afraid of the Dark's third season. She later appeared in Party of Five and Freaks and Geeks and starred on the TV series Reba. More recently, she played Ariel on Once Upon a Time.

9. JAY BARUCHEL

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The Knocked Up and Man Seeking Woman actor appeared in a few episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, including Season 6's "The Tale of the Zombie Dice” and "The Tale of the Walking Shadow,” and the Season 7 episode “The Tale of the Time Trap.” He made his first appearance in Season 5’s “The Tale of Dead Man's Float” (above), playing a little kid who, in 1954, gets attacked by a ghost in a pool (which was, naturally, built over a graveyard). When the pool is reopened in the present day, things don’t go so well.

10. HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN // SEASON 6, EPISODE 13

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Before he was Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen played Kirk in the 1999 episode “The Tale of Bigfoot Ridge.” The episode involved snowboarding, some excellent ‘90s music, the search for a missing friend, and a ghost that kidnaps people.

11. EDDIE KAYE THOMAS // SEASON 3, EPISODE 9

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Future American Pie star Eddie Kaye Thomas had his first-ever screen role in Are You Afraid of the Dark? in the 1994 episode “The Tale of the Curious Camera.” He played Matt, a kid that nobody notices—unless they’re bullying him. When he fails to show up in his basketball team portrait, the photographer gives him an antique camera. But it’s no ordinary camera: Bad things seem to happen to anything Matt takes a picture of. It’s all fun and games when it’s a picture of the wall or a bully at school—less so after Matt accidentally snaps a photo of his parents. (This is probably an homage to the Twilight Zone episode “A Most Unusual Camera.”)

12. COLIN FERGUSON // SEASON 5, EPISODE 7

Araya Diaz/Getty Images for IGN Entertainment

This actor, who starred on the SyFy series Eureka, got his start on Are You Afraid of the Dark?. In “The Tale of C7" Ferguson plays Tommy, one of the spirits summoned from a nearby lake by an old jukebox.

13. RACHEL BLANCHARD

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Blanchard had a few roles under her belt when she played Kristen, a member of the Midnight Society, on 26 episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? from 1990 to 1993. Later, she played Cher in the TV version of Clueless, had a guest-starring role on 7th Heaven, and, most recently, appeared in the TV series Fargo.

14. AARON ASHMORE

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Now best known for playing Jimmy Olsen on Smallville and Steve Jinks in Warehouse 13, Aaron Ashmore had just one screen credit to his name when he played Billy in the 1993 episode “The Tale of the Thirteenth Floor.” In 2000, he appeared on the show again, this time playing Jake in “The Tale of the Lunar Locusts.” The episode starred figure skater Tara Lipinski, who played an alien named Ellen, and dealt with alien babies buried beneath a school football field.

15. JEWEL STAITE

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Firefly and Serenity star Jewel Staite appeared on two episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?. In the Season 3 episode “The Tale of Watcher’s Woods," she played Kelly, a sorta-snooty summer camp attendee who gets lost in a dark and dangerous woods. Then, in Season 4, she got to rock the truly '90s fashion combo of turtleneck and strong-shouldered blazer as Cody in “The Tale of the Unfinished Painting.”

16. CHRISTOPHER HEYERDAHL

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Now known for his roles on Van Helsing, Hell on Wheels, Caprica, and True Blood, and for playing Marcus in the Twilight series, Christopher Heyerdahl had just one screen credit to his name when he appeared on Are You Afraid of the Dark? in two Season 2 episodes. First, he played Nosferatu in “The Tale of the Midnight Madness” (above), and, just two episodes later, played Leonid in “The Tale of the Thirteenth Floor.”

17. CHARLIE HOFHEIMER

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The man who would play Peggy Olsen’s boyfriend Abe Drexler on Mad Men and later take a starring role in 24: Legacy appeared in two episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? in the mid-’90s: “The Tale of the Water Demons” in Season 4—he played Dean Wilson, the cousin of the bad boy main character—and Season 5’s “The Tale of the Unexpected Visitor,” in which we learn a very valuable lesson: Never hack into the satellites your dad is using for deep space research. Not even to get "World War Four: Their Finest Hour" for free.

18. GREGORY SMITH // SEASON 4, EPISODE 13

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Future Everwood star Gregory Smith played train-obsessed Tim Williamson in “The Tale of Train Magic.” When a ghostly conductor gives Tim a new car for his train set, Tim is transported onto train 713 ... which had actually crashed years earlier, killing everyone on board.

19. CHRISTOPHER REDMAN

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Yet another actor who appeared on multiple episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Christopher Redman played Mike Carter, big brother to a truly awful little kid who steals the money for their mom's birthday gift and buys a Nintendo game, in the Season 3 episode “The Tale of the Crimson Clown” and, in Season 4, played Simon Lewis in “The Tale of the Renegade Virus.” He would go on to have roles in StarGate: SG1, Touching Evil, and Saved. He also played Michael Travers in 25 episodes of CSI: Miami.

20. AND 21. A.J. BUCKLEY and TED WHITTALL // SEASON 5, EPISODE 8

After he appeared as camp counselor Lonnie in the 1995 episode “The Tale of Manaha”—which featured monsters hungry for human flesh!—A.J. Buckley played Adam Ross on CSI: New York, Ed Zeddmore in Supernatural, and Danny Crowe in Justified. And in just his second-ever role, Ted Whittall—who has since appeared on The L Word, Smallville, Once Upon a Time, and Beauty and the Beast—played an unnamed Park Ranger.

22. KYLE DOWNES

Now best known as Lizzy McGuire’s Larry Tudgeman, Kyle Downes appeared in two Season 6 episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, playing two different characters. In “The Tale of the Forever Game,” he played Nathaniel, a guy trapped in a tree until he can win a Jumanji-esque board game, and in “The Tale of Vampire Town,” he played vampire slayer Adder Carballo.

23. VANESSA LENGIES

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The American Dreams, Stick It!, and Glee actress became a member of the Midnight Society in 1999, playing Vange on the show's final two seasons.

24. LAURA VANDERVOOT // SEASON 7, EPISODE 11

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After she played Ashley Fox in the 2000 episode “The Tale of the Laser Maze”—which involves laser tag, karate, and clones—Laura Vandervoot appeared in Instant Star, had a role in Ted, and played Supergirl on Smallville.

25. EMILY VANCAMP // SEASON 7, EPISODES 1, 2, AND 3

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The future Everwood and Revenge star played Peggy Gregory in final season's three-part opener The Tale of the Silver Sight. It was her first-ever on-screen role.

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