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US National Archives

Germany’s Fateful Gamble

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US National Archives

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 262nd installment in the series. 

January 9, 1917: Germany’s Fateful Gamble

The most fateful decision of the First World War was made on January 9, 1917, at a top-secret meeting of Germany’s civil and military leaders at Pless Castle in Silesia in Eastern Germany. Here, at the urging of chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his close collaborator, first quartermaster Erich Ludendorff, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg reluctantly agreed to the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare – a gamble that would decide the outcome of the war.

As 1917 began, Germany’s strategic options were narrowing. The plan of the previous chief of the general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, to bleed France white at Verdun had succeeded in causing massive casualties but failed to split the Allies or knock France out of the war, as hoped. Germany’s main allies, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, were both on the defensive, requiring more and more assistance to simply survive, and the simultaneous Allied offensives at the Somme and in Galicia had sorely taxed German manpower and material.

Meanwhile Germany’s vast industrial machine was gradually being stretched to the limit, while shortages of food and fuel stirred growing discontent in the civilian population. The indecisive Battle of Jutland in May 1916 left the Allied naval blockade undisturbed, and Britain’s adoption of conscription was putting several million new soldiers in the field. 

But Hindenburg and Ludendorff believed that victory was still within reach, provided Germany acted boldly and swiftly. Indeed the Allies also found themselves overstretched, as France reached the limits of her own manpower following Verdun and the Russians suddenly found themselves responsible for shoring up Romania, or what was left of it. Further, as before Germany enjoyed the advantage of a central position, allowing it to move forces between various fronts and perhaps defeat its enemies “in detail,” or one at a time.

In order to exploit these opportunities, in 1917 Hindenburg and Ludendorff contemplated yet another shift in focus, this time from west to east (reversing Falkhenhayn’s earlier switch from east to west). On the Western Front, they planned a surprise withdrawal from the Somme to massive, newly constructed fortifications at the Siegfried Line – known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line – shortening the front by around 25 miles and freeing up two whole armies for service elsewhere. 

By going on the defensive on the Western Front, they hoped, Germany would be able to deliver a knockout blow to Italy, Russia, or both; Russia in particular was already teetering on the edge of revolution, and the incompetent tsarist regime just needed a final push before it collapsed.

However Hindenburg and Ludendorff realized that simply shortening the Western Front and digging in wouldn’t be enough: they also had to ratchet up the pressure on Britain in order to keep the British from launching a new offensive like the Somme, and maybe even knock them out of the war. To accomplish this they pinned their hopes on a new (but no longer secret) weapon: the submarine.

“Germany Is Playing Her Last Card” 

Germany had already tried unrestricted U-boat warfare twice, unleashing a growing fleet of submarines on Allied and neutral shipping, with permission to sink unarmed merchant ships without warning. But on both occasions these campaigns were eventually suspended (first in the summer of 1915, then again in the spring of 1916) in the face of protests from neutral countries, especially the United States of America, over civilian casualties. 

The threat of war with the U.S. had forced Berlin to back down twice, but by early 1917 Germany’s leaders were willing to take the risk. A number of factors contributed to this shift, including the general sense that time was working against Germany, as well as public demands for retaliation in kind against the “Starvation Blockade” maintained by the British Royal Navy. The steady growth of Germany’s U-boat fleet also held out the promise of a decisive result. 

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Most important, however, were Britain’s growing dependence on U.S. imports to sustain its war effort, a vulnerability which could be exploited by attacks on shipping, and the resulting enmity of Germany’s new military leaders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, towards the U.S.

According to the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, James Gerard, in the fall of 1916 Ludendorff was on the record as stating that “he did not believe America could do more damage to Germany than she had done if the countries were actually at war, and that he considered that, practically, America and Germany were engaged in hostilities.” With the ascendancy of Hindenburg and Ludendorff over Germany’s civilian government – in effect a bloodless military coup countenanced by Kaiser Wilhelm II – the balance of political power in Berlin shifted towards open confrontation.

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The minutes of the meeting on January 9, 1917, make clear that Bethmann-Hollweg was now playing second fiddle to Hindenburg and Ludendorff, public heroes who enjoyed the backing of the fickle monarch. Germany’s leaders also allowed themselves to be swayed by optimistic thinking, in the form of cheery projections from the Admiralty about how quickly British morale and war-making capacity could be destroyed through unrestricted sinkings. 

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Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, who headed the Admiralty’s analytical division, calculated that Germany’s growing U-boat fleet could sink 500,000-600,000 tons of British shipping per month at first – a forecast that proved remarkably accurate. However Holtzendorff erred in his assumptions about the impact that this would have on Britain’s total available shipping, as the British could requisition neutral shipping and order more replacements from American shipyards. The German Admiralty also failed to anticipate Allied tactics for convoying merchant ships (they believed convoys were ineffective, and if anything would make it easier for submarines to find targets). Finally, the German high command underestimated Britain’s ability to increase domestic production by finding manufacturing substitutes, implement rationing, and bring new farmland under cultivation; although ordinary British people certainly suffered from shortages and chaffed at rationing, the U-boat campaign fell far short of “starving Britain to her knees.”

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Equally important to the German (mis)calculations was the belief that America, as a mercantile but not mercenary nation, was basically unwilling to fight, due both to her traditional isolation and what they viewed as the social and cultural incoherence of the American population, resulting from the large proportion of immigrants (including millions of German descent, whom they assumed would not be loyal to their adopted land).

In short they predicted that the undisciplined, polyglot American rabble would resist conscription and European-style mass mobilization. Instead, any declaration of war would be mostly symbolic, or as Bethmann-Hollweg summarized the military leaders’ argument: “America's assistance, in case she enters the war, will consist in the delivery of food supplies to England, financial support, delivery of airplanes and the dispatching of corps of volunteers.” And its armed forces were so pathetically small that even if America did fight, Hindenburg and Ludendorff assured the civilians, Germany could win the war before it had a chance to mobilize enough men to make a difference in Europe. 

It’s worth pointing out that even at this critical stage, not everyone was convinced. Indeed Bethmann-Hollweg sounded a skeptical note during the meeting, observing, “Admiral von Holtzendorff assumes that we will have England on her knees by the next harvest… Of course, it must be admitted that those prospects are not capable of being demonstrated by proof.” Nevertheless he bowed to the general’s convictions, thus completing the submission of Germany’s civilian government to its military.

When the decision was publicized at the end of the month, everyone understood that Germany’s fate was riding on the outcome. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, confided in her diary: “We all know and feel that Germany is playing her last card; with what results, no one can possibly foretell.” Unrestricted U-boat warfare would resume on February 1, 1917.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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10 Badass Facts About Jason Statham
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Jason Statham is one of the preeminent action heroes of a generation—some would say he’s our last action hero. On the screen, he's been a hitman, a transporter, a con man, a veteran, and a whole host of other unsavory, but oddly endearing, tough guys. Before he stepped foot on his first movie set, though, Statham had a past life that would rival any of the colorful characters he’s brought to the screen. To celebrate his 50th birthday, we’re digging into what makes this English bruiser tick with these 10 fascinating facts about Jason Statham.

1. DIVING WAS HIS FIRST CALLING.

Before becoming a big-screen tough guy, Jason Statham exuded grace and fluidity as one of the world’s top competitive divers in the early 1990s. He spent 12 years as part of the British National Diving Squad, highlighted by competing in the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand.

Though he was an elite diver, Statham never qualified for the Olympics, which he admits is still a “sore point” for him. "I started too late," he has said of his diving career. "It probably wasn't my thing. I should have done a different sport."

2. HE DABBLED IN MODELING.

With his diving career over, Statham entered the world of modeling for the fashion company French Connection. If his rugged image doesn’t seem to naturally lend itself to the world of male modeling, that was exactly what the company was going for.

“We chose Jason because we wanted our model to look like a normal guy," Lilly Anderson, a spokesperson for French Connection, said in a 1995 interview with the Independent. "His look is just right for now—very masculine and not too male-modelly."

3. HE DANCED HALF-NAKED IN A COUPLE OF MUSIC VIDEOS.

A word of warning: The internet never forgets. Back in 2015, two ‘90s music videos went viral—“Comin’ On” by The Shamen and “Run to the Sun” by Erasure—and it’s not because the songs were just that good. It’s because both videos featured a half-naked, and quite oily, Jason Statham curiously dancing away in the background.

Both make liberal use of Statham’s lack of modesty, which is a far cry from the slick suits and commando gear we’d later see him sporting in The Transporter and Expendables series. So which one is your favorite? Leopard-print Speedo Statham from “Comin’ On” or his Silver Surfer look from “Run to the Sun”? And no, “both” isn’t an option. (Though “neither” is acceptable.)

4. GUY RITCHIE CAST HIM BECAUSE HE WAS SELLING KNOCKOFF JEWELRY AND PERFUME ON THE STREET.

After years of high dives, modeling, and pelvic gyrations, Statham was still looking to make a real living in the late ‘90s. His next odd job? Selling knockoff perfume and jewelry on London street corners. Luckily, that type of real-world hoodlum was exactly what director Guy Ritchie needed for 1998's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Ritchie was introduced to Statham through his modeling gig at French Connection and saw the potential this real-world con man had for the movie. He wrote the role of Bacon specifically for Statham, which would end up being the movie that propelled him to Hollywood stardom.

5. JOHN CARPENTER WANTED HIM AS THE LEAD IN GHOSTS OF MARS.

Though Statham gained acclaim for his role in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, he wasn’t quite a leading man yet. Director John Carpenter wanted to change that by casting him as James “Desolation” Williams, the main character in Ghosts of Mars.

While Carpenter was convinced that Statham was ready for the role, the producers weren’t. They pushed the director to cast someone with more name value, eventually settling on Ice Cube. Statham stayed in the movie in a smaller role as Sgt. Jericho Butler.

6. HE REGULARLY DOES HIS OWN STUNTS.

Jason Statham in Wild Card (2015).
Lionsgate

In addition to being in impeccable shape, Statham also takes pride in doing many of his own stunts in his movies, from hand-to-hand combat to dangling from a helicopter 3000 feet above downtown Los Angeles. In fact, he’s almost dogmatic in his belief that actors should be doing their own stunts.

“I'm inspired by the people who could do their own work,” the actor said. “Bruce Lee never had stunt doubles and fight doubles, or Jackie Chan or Jet Li. I've been in action movies where there is a face replacement and I'm fighting with a double, and it's embarrassing.”

The worst offenders? Superhero movies. And Statham isn't shy about sharing his thoughts on those:

"You slip on a cape and you put on the tights and you become a superhero? They're not doing anything! They're just sitting in their trailer. It's absolutely, 100 percent created by stunt doubles and green screen. How can I get excited about that?"

7. FILMING EXPENDABLES 3 ALMOST KILLED HIM.

For all the authenticity that Statham likes to bring to the screen by doing his own stunts, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. While filming an action scene for Expendables 3, the brakes failed on a three-ton stunt truck Statham was driving, sending it off a cliff and into the Black Sea.

If you've ever wondered if the real Statham was anything like the movie version, his underwater escape from a mammoth truck should answer that.

"It's the closest I've ever been to drowning,” Statham said on Today. “I've done a lot of scuba diving; I've done a lot of free diving ... No matter how much of that you've done, it doesn't teach you to breathe underwater ... I came very close to drowning. It was a very harrowing experience."

8. HE PRACTICES A RANGE OF MARTIAL ARTS.

Statham’s fitness routine is about more than just weights and core work. The actor is also involved in a variety of different fighting disciplines like boxing, judo, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Out of everything he does to stay in shape, it’s the martial arts that have the been most helpful for Statham’s onscreen presence. “That’s what I have to give most of my time to these days: training for what I have to do in terms of providing action in an authentic manner," he told Men's Health

Statham is not alone in his passion for martial arts; director Guy Ritchie is also a black belt in jiu-jitsu and a brown belt in karate. When Men’s Health asked Statham if the two ever sparred, he responded, “I remember when we started out, we’d go on a press tour for Lock, Stock… and we’d be moving all the furniture out of the way in the hotel room, trying to choke each other out.”

After all, what are collaborators for?

9. HE’S WELL AWARE SOME OF HIS MOVIES HAVE BEEN DUDS.

When asked by Esquire if he ever watched one of his movies during the premiere and thought "Oh, no ...," his response was a very self-aware: "Yeah, I think I've said that more often than not. Yeah."

He went on to rattle off his Guy Ritchie movies, The Bank Job, Transporter 1 and 2 (not 3), and Crank as being among his favorite films. As for the others, the actor joked, “And the rest is sh*t."

He clarified that remark as a joke and said, “I mean, you do a lot of films. You're always aiming for something and trying to push yourself to do something good.”

He then compared his work to the inner workings of a watch, saying, “A movie, it's like a very complicated timepiece. There's a lot of wheels in a watch. And some of those wheels, if they don't turn right, then, you know, the watch ain't gonna tell the time."

10. HIS MOVIES HAVE MADE MORE THAN $1.5 BILLION IN THE U.S. ALONE.

Statham's films may have a tough time impressing critics, but audiences and studio executives can’t get enough. Taken as a whole, Statham’s filmography has raked in just a touch more than $1.5 billion in the United States, with the worldwide total standing at $5.1 billion.

A lot of this is due to his more recent entry into the Fast and Furious franchise, but he’s also had seven movies cross the $100 million mark worldwide outside of that series. This isn’t an accident; Statham knows exactly what type of movie keeps the lights on, as he explained in an interview with The Guardian.

“So if you've got a story about a depressed doctor whose estranged wife doesn't wanna be with him no more, and you put me in it, people aren't gonna put money on the table. Whereas if you go, 'All he does is get in the car, hit someone on the head, shoot someone in the f*cking feet,' then, yep, they'll give you $20 million. You can't fault these people for wanting to make money.”

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The 5 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
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Nicolas Cage stars in Knowing (2009).
Vince Valitutti/Summit Entertainment

If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are five of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

If any film stands as a proper influence on The Twilight Zone and its use of science-fiction and fantasy to mask political and civil issues, it’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, a Cold War-era parable about an alien named Klaatu who arrives on Earth carrying a warning about warfare. Naturally, all humans want to do is shoot him.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. KNOWING (2009)

The histrionics of Nicolas Cage: You either like them or you don’t. Knowing is Cage at half-caf: While he enjoys a few meltdown scenes, he’s largely reserved here as an astrophysics professor who stumbles onto information that could herald the end of the world.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  

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