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The Tide Turns At Verdun

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 247th installment in the series.  

August 18, 1916: The Tide Turns At Verdun

When 1916 began, German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn hoped it would be the year that delivered final victory for Germany, thanks to his plan to “bleed France white” with a massive onslaught at Verdun. Eight months later, however, it had delivered only dashed hopes and setbacks. 

To begin with the Verdun attack had gone off the rails, as the Fifth Army commander, German crown prince Frederick Wilhelm, allowed his corps and divisional commanders to press forward despite heavy casualties, either failing to understand or simply disregarding Falkenhayn’s fine-tuned plan to lure the French into a battle of attrition; indeed Verdun ended up costing the Germans almost as many casualties as they inflicted on the French. Then, beginning in June the Russian Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front smashed through Austria-Hungary’s weakened armies in Poland and Galicia, forcing Falkenhayn to withdraw troops from the Western Front to shore up Germany’s ailing Habsburg ally. Just as the situation on the Eastern Front seemed to be stabilizing, in July and August the mighty British assault on the Somme forced him to withdraw more troops from Verdun, effectively ending the German offensive there. As the summer wore on a new Russian push and Italy’s unexpected victory at the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo only added to the Central Powers’ woes. 

With the balance of forces at Verdun gradually tipping against the Germans, it was only a matter of time before the French began trying to push their foes back from the citadel, now a prime symbol of French resistance to the invader. The task fell to two officers known for their brash confidence and aggressive attitudes: General Robert Nivelle, commander of the French Second Army, and his subordinate Charles Mangin, who earned the nickname “the Butcher” for his apparent indifference to casualties. 

“They Shall Not Pass!”

After capturing Fort Vaux in early June, the Germans mounted a series of attacks battering away at the last ring of French defenses in front of Verdun, bringing them within a few miles of the citadel itself. On June 22 the attackers unleashed phosgene gas for the first time, with horrifying results, but failed to overcome the defenders in Fort Souville, as French artillerymen rushed back to their guns as soon as the gas cleared. Another German assault on Fort Souville on July 11 again failed to take its objective – this time the French had their gas masks ready – but the attackers did manage to capture the ruins of the village of Fleury, occupying a key strategic position on the road to Fort Souville (by this time of course the village had been wiped off the map; below, a monument to Fleury today). It was during the desperate defense of Fort Souville that General Nivelle made his famous vow, “Ils ne passeront pas!” – “They shall not pass!” – which proved prophetic.  Indeed, this was the high watermark of the German offensive at Verdun.

As the Germans came under sustained pressure at the Somme, beginning in mid-July the fighting at Verdun transitioned (temporarily) from large-scale offensives to numerous smaller actions, as both sides sought to improve their position by straightening the frontline or capturing fortified positions – but the whole time the tide was steadily turning against the Germans. 

One of the main French objectives was Fleury, connecting Fort Souville with the Ouvrage de Thiaumont, a fortified artillery position which in turn dominated the road to Fort Douaumont in the north – the key to the entire Verdun fortress complex, in German hands since February. Nivelle and Mangin were determined to recapture the village; meanwhile the Germans, also under the spell of Verdun’s symbolism, fought tooth and nail for every inch of territory. Thus the struggle for Fleury became just as intense, within its narrow confines, as the much bigger clashes earlier in the battle. 

In a measure of the ferocity (and futility) of the fighting during this period, it is worth noting that between June 23 and August 18, the ruins of Fleury were conquered and re-conquered by the opposing sides 16 times, or about once every four days on average, amid shocking bloodshed every time. 

Finally, in fierce fighting on August 8-18, 1916, the French took possession of Fleury again – this time for good. The honor, and horror, of this occasion fell to a French colonial infantry regiment from Morocco, who pushed the Germans from the desolate battlefield and then mounted a tenacious resistance in the face of numerous counterattacks over this ten-day period. Supposedly the Moroccan regiment sang the French national anthem, the “Marseillaise,” during the final assault on August 17-18. This victory laid the groundwork for a new series of French counterattacks from August to October, 1916, gradually pushing the Germans back to Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux (see map below). 

The ruins of Fleury, the object of some of the most ferocious combat of the First World War, contained gruesome sights. On August 20, William Stevenson, an American volunteer ambulance driver serving with the French Army at Verdun, wrote of the village and its environs:

The ground over which the men fight is simply indescribable,– nothing but twisted and splintered stumps of trees (the place around here was formerly a wood). The ground looks as though a huge plough had furrowed and turned it over. Empty shells everywhere, arms and accouterments of all sorts strewing the land, unexploded grenades, and fusées [flares] that threaten one every step. Bastions of [sand]bags and bits of trenches, hastily made, connect up a few of the larger and most useful shell holes – dismounted “75’s,” bloody rags and clothes, mouldy food and half-empty tins. And the most pathetic of all, numberless graves simply made by covering up a body in a shell hole, with a bit of wood stuck in it, or a bottle with the man’s number on it. These, in turn, have been blown up again and again. Over all prevailed a smell of rotting flash and the acrid, damp odor of burned clothes and wood, such as one gets after a city fire when the ruins have been soaked in water. Not a sign of life except the myriads of gnats and flies which darken the air when disturbed, and the rats that scurry from under one’s feet. One of the “Génie” [engineers] told us that the job of trench-digging through this land fought over for two years is about the most horrible imaginable, as they constantly have to dig through rotting bodies which render the trench, once dug, almost uninhabitable. 

And Fleury was just one small corner of the Verdun battlefield, albeit a heavily contested one: similar sights were to be found all along the front, from “Hill 304” and the saddleback ridge known as “Le Mort Homme” to the ruins of Bras and the slopes before Fort Vaux (below, a pile of human remains at Verdun).

In July 1916 an anonymous French soldier summed up the feeling of the hundreds of thousands of men who witnessed and participated in these scenes, leaving them both physically and emotionally scarred for life: 

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...

In light of the never-ending psychological trauma, it’s no wonder so many men suffered from shell shock, a vague and broadly defined phenomenon whose symptoms overlapped with what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, and which manifested in extreme effects ranging from physical paralysis to psychosis. On August 25, 1916, Stevenson recorded an everyday occurrence for the ambulance crews: 

I carried a crazy man this morning. I found him wandering aimlessly around Verdun with a nasty hole in his head, and tried to get him into the car, but he kept insisting he was too heavy. Finally, with the aid of a couple of soldiers we made him get aboard… I held him with one hand while I steered him to the hospital in the town… Then, when he got to the hospital he refused to leave the car. He seemed to have become attached to it, so we had to drag him out.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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entertainment
13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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