Germans Withdraw to Hindenburg Line, Wilson Decides On War

Long, Long Trail
Long, Long Trail

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 271st installment in the series.  

March 21, 1917: Germans Withdraw to Hindenburg Line, Wilson Decides On War 

In the first months of 1917, the German Army achieved one of the greatest strategic surprises of the entire First World War with its successful withdrawal to a new, virtually impenetrable defensive line on part of the Western Front – called the Siegfriedstellung or “Siegfried Position” by the Germans, better known to the Allies at the “Hindenburg Line” for its creator, German chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg.

The plan dated back to Hindenburg’s ascent to the high command – aided as always by his close collaborator Erich Ludendorff, holding the title of quartermaster general – in August 1916. Shortly after assuming power, the duo cancelled the failed offensive at Verdun and decided to shorten the German lines on the Western Front by withdrawing from the area around the Somme, where two large German salients lay exposed to the north and south of the battlefield following the British offensive in the summer and fall of 1916. 

Both moves were part of Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s larger plan to shift the focus of the German war effort to the Eastern Front, the scene of their first great victory at Tannenberg, in the belief that a decisive victory over Russia was still possible, in contrast to the unbreakable deadlock on the Western Front. The withdrawal from the Somme to the new heavily fortified defensive line (in fact a whole network of trenches and bunkers) would shorten the front by 25 miles and free up 13 divisions for use elsewhere.

A vast system of trenches, barbed wire emplacements, and concrete dugouts and strongholds, stretching 85 miles between the towns of Arras and Soissons on the French side and in front of St. Quentin on the German side, the Hindenburg Line was largely completed in six months beginning in September 1916. Construction required 100,000 tons of cement, 12,500 tons of barbed wire, and vast quantities of rocks and gravel, filling 50,000 railcars and 450 large canal barges. A total of 70,000 laborers were employed in its construction, including 12,000 German pioneers, 50,000 Russian prisoners-of-war and 3,000 deported Belgian civilians (the latter two in violation of international conventions signed by Germany before the war). The project also required a web of new roads and railroads, power plants, water and sewage connections, and hundreds of miles of telephone lines. 

Unwilling to free the French population under their control, the Germans forcibly evacuated around 125,000 residents to other areas of occupied France, outraging public opinion in the U.S. (already moving towards war) as well as a host of other neutral countries. In order to slow the enemy advance and deny them any material advantage, the Germans methodically laid waste to the French countryside before withdrawing, destroying farmland, killing livestock, felling orchards, and burning villages – all of which proved another godsend for Allied propagandists. 

In his memoir “Storm of Steel,” the German soldier author Ernst Junger described the devastation:

The villages we passed through on our way had the look of vast lunatic asylums. Whole companies were set to knocking or pulling down walls, or sitting on rooftops, uprooting the tiles. Trees were cut down, windows smashed; wherever you looked, clouds of smoke and dust rose from vast piles of debris. We saw men dashing about wearing suits and dresses left behind by the inhabitants, with top hats on their heads… As far back as the Siegfried Line, every village was reduced to rubble, every tree chopped down, every road undermined, every well poisoned, every basement blown up or booby-trapped, every rail unscrewed, every telephone wire rolled up, everything burnable burned; in a word, we were turning the country that our advancing opponents would occupy into a wasteland. 

The Germans left behind thousands of booby-traps, according to Junger: 

Among the surprises we’d prepared for our successors were some truly malicious inventions. Very fine wires, almost invisible, were stretched across the entrances of buildings and shelters, which set off explosive charges at the faintest touch. In some places, narrow ditches were dug across roads, and shells hidden in them; they were covered over by an oak plank, and had earth strewn over them. A nail had been driven into the plank, only just above the shell-fuse. The space was measured so that marching troops could pass over the spot safely, but the moment the first lorry or field gun rumbled up, the board would give, and the nail would touch off the shell. Or there were spiteful time bombs that were buried in the basements of undamaged buildings... One such device blew up the town hall of Bapaume just as the authorities had assembled to celebrate victory. 

Geoffrey Malins, a British cinematographer filming the war for the British Army, left a similar portrait of total devastation (below, King George V visits the remains of Peronne): 

Not a tree was standing; whole orchards were hewn down; every fruit tree and bush was destroyed; hedges were cut at the base as if with a razor; even those surrounding cemeteries were treated in the same way. Agricultural implements were smashed. Mons en Chaussee was the first village we entered; every house was a blackened smoking ruin, and where the fiends had not done their work with fire they had brought dynamite to their aid; whole blocks of buildings had been blown into the air; there was not sufficient cover for a dog. 

The Germans abandoned their old positions along the Somme front in a carefully staged series of withdrawals beginning February 23rd, with the majority of movement occurring in a phased retreat from March 16-21, and the full withdrawal complete by April 5. Much of the withdrawal was conducted under cover of night and included numerous attempts at deception, including skeleton crews who remained behind until the last moment to keep up a screen of fire from machine guns, rifles, and mortars. 

In some places, however, the Germans couldn’t conceal their preparations for the pullback from Allied observers, presenting an opportunity for a bold attack taking advantage of the weakened defenses to disrupt the retreat and maybe even achieve a breakthrough. However Robert Nivelle, the new French commander-in-chief, remained focus on perfecting his upcoming April offensive, and on March 4 he rejected a proposal by General Franchet d’Esperey (nicknamed “Desperate Frankie” by the Brits) to mount a surprise attack with tanks, leaving the Germans to withdraw mostly unhindered (below, an aerial view of the Hindenburg Line). 

The British and French moved forward cautiously in the wake of the enemy retreat, taking in the horrors of no-man’s-land and devastation left behind by the withdrawing Germans. Philip Gibbs, a British correspondent, described German bodies left behind in what used to be no-man’s-land and the frontline trenches on the Somme battlefield north of Courcelette:

They lie grey wet lumps of death over a great stretch of ground, many of them half buried by their comrades or by high explosives. Most of them are stark above the soil with their eye-sockets to the sky… Their bodies or their fragments lay in every shape and shapelessness of death, in puddles of broken trenches or on the edge of deep ponds in shell-craters. The water was vivid green about them, or red as blood, with the colour of high-explosive gases… Where I stood was only one patch of ground on a wide battlefield. It is all like that, though elsewhere the dead are not so thickly clustered. For miles it is all pitted with ten-feet craters intermingling and leaving not a yard of earth untouched. It is one great obscenity, killing for all time the legend of war’s glory and romance.

John Jackson, a British soldier, recalled the ensuing advance into what were formerly German rear areas, where he saw huge barbed wire entanglements far behind the old front lines, on March 17, 1917:

The enemy had retired quickly and completely behind the line of the Somme Canal, leaving us nothing but empty trenches. It had been a cunning move and well executed… Except for occasional shells from long-range guns, which did no harm, the day passed over very quietly, while we advanced steadily, yet with caution, always on the look-out for a trap. The village of Barleux was entered without opposition and beyond it we came to the most perfect barbed-wire defensive system I had yet seen. It stretched to the right and left as far as the eye could see, and varied in depth from 30 to 40 yards. Composed of the roughest and most destructive wire imaginable, it would have proved a very serious obstacle to pass in a fight… In the darkness of night we could see the glare in the sky from great fires as the Germans burned the villages while retreating. 

Simply restoring communication and transportation links across the devastated area would be a massive task, taking weeks if not months of round-the-clock repair work – just as the Germans intended. Edward Shears, a British officer, described the preliminary efforts to make roads usable again in his diary on March 19: 

There was a belt of country three or four miles wide with literally no communications, and the work of construction involved was colossal… In places the road cleared easily. There were some six inches of mud and debris to scrape off, and then we came to the old surface unimpaired. Elsewhere shells had made large holes, and the job of filling these in was a longer one. 

The German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line was better timed than they could have possibly imagined, as the sudden shift backwards helped disrupt the huge Allied attack planned by Nivelle for mid-April. The Nivelle Offensive, as it was remembered, would inevitably require massive artillery preparation and follow-up bombardments, calling for huge amounts of ammunition delivered by a fleet of trains and trucks; the German withdrawal dislocated these logistical efforts, forcing the Allies to improvise delivery of shells and other necessities on a large scale.

Even more importantly, Nivelle’s elaborate plan of attack (involving five French and British armies, numbering 1.2 million troops and 7,000 artillery pieces) depended heavily on detailed knowledge of the German positions and surrounding landscape for precisely calibrated artillery bombardments – an advantage which was now canceled out by the German move. In many places both the French artillery and infantry would be attacking unmapped, heavily fortified German positions, with predictably disastrous results. 

Wilson Decides For War

Even after the Zimmermann Telegram made headlines on March 1, 1917, outraging American public opinion, President Woodrow Wilson continued to move cautiously, apparently still unsure whether the United States was ready to go to war against Germany – or even that it was necessary to do so. However the events of the following weeks helped decide him on this fateful step, as the balance of public opinion finally appeared to shift towards war, thanks in part to fresh German outrages on the high seas. 

The sinking of U.S. merchant ships – the Illinois, City of Memphis, and Vigilancia – by German U-boats on March 16-18, 1917 seems to have settled the issue in the minds of Wilson’s closest advisors, including Secretary of State Robert Lansing and Wilson’s personal friend and confidante, Colonel E.M. House, who joined forces to persuade the president that the time had come. 

The sinkings were part of a sharp increase in losses since the resumption of submarine warfare in February, with losses set to soar in April, threatening to cut off American exports of armaments and bring the Allied war effort to a halt. Wilson’s decision to arm American merchant ships was a big step towards belligerent status, but the Germans would do everything within their power to avoid an open state of war with the United States – even if that meant losing a few U-boats to armed merchant ships, while continuing to sink hundreds more. 

Click to enlarge

Lansing argued forcefully for a declaration of war in a letter to Wilson on March 19, in which he noted that Germany and America were essentially already at war on the high seas: 

It will, therefore, be only a question of time before we are forced to recognize these outrages as hostile acts which will amount to an announcement that a state of war exists. I firmly believe that war will come within a short time whatever we may do, because the German Government seems to be relentless in pursuing its methods of warfare against neutral ships… 

As always, Lansing also framed America’s entry into the war as a blow for democracy, reflecting the patriotic idealism he shared with Wilson, including their desire to support Russia’s new “democracy”: 

… Entente Allies represent the principle of Democracy, and the Central Powers, the principle of Autocracy, and that it is for the welfare of mankind and for the establishment of peace in the world that Democracy should succeed. In the first place it would encourage and strengthen the new democratic government of Russia, which we ought to encourage and with which we ought to sympathize. 

Finally, a declaration of war now would secure America’s place on the world stage and ensure its participation in peace negotiations, where it could work to restrain the Allies from imposing a “vengeful,” destructive peace on Germany (left unsaid was the fact that American banks had loaned billions of dollars to the Allies, threatening financial and economic collapse if they lost).

Lansing also enlisted Wilson’s friend and confidante, Colonel House, to help persuade Wilson that it was time to act. On March 19 Lansing wrote to House: 

I have just returned from a conference with the President. He is disposed not to summon Congress as a result of the sinking of these vessels… I suggested that he might call them to consider declaring war, and urged the present was the psychological moment in view of the Russian revolution and the anti-Prussian spirit in Germany, and that to throw our moral influence in the scale at this time would aid the Russian liberals and might even cause revolution in Germany… If you agree with me that we should act now, will you not please put your shoulder to the wheel?

Finally on March 20 Wilson called a meeting of his cabinet, whose members spoke unanimously in favor of a declaration of war against Germany. The following day, March 21, 1917, Wilson called Congress into session eight months early, with a special session scheduled for April 2. While Wilson didn’t disclose his reasons for doing so, there could now be little doubt that he intended to ask Congress for a declaration of war. 

American Protective League Formed 

Even before the declaration of war, American society was changing under the pressure of events. On March 22, 1917 A.M. Briggs, a Chicago advertising executive, formed what was essentially a national vigilante organization, the American Protective League, to monitor pro-German opinion in the American public, prevent sabotage and strikes, and hunt down pro-German agents; later it would also arrest draft dodgers, infiltrate the labor movement, break up peace demonstrations, and enforce rules against hoarding – sometimes using violence.

Remarkably Briggs received authorization from U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, who made the APL a semi-official adjunct of the U.S. Justice Department. Eventually the APL’s membership would swell to 250,000 people across the U.S., although not all of these were necessarily active “agents.” After the war, many APL members in the South joined the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

See the previous installment or all entries.

15 Uncensored Facts About Midnight Cowboy

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

On May 25, 1969, United Artists released the film Midnight Cowboy, starring Jon Voight (Texas transplant Joe Buck) and Dustin Hoffman (the sleazy Ratso Rizzo) as street hustlers in New York City. It was the first studio film to receive an X-rating (the studio refused to edit anything out), and it became the first X-rated movie to be nominated and win a Best Picture Oscar (A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris followed suit with X-rated nominations). Hoffman and Voight were also nominated for Oscars, and screenwriter Waldo Salt and director John Schlesinger ended up winning gold statuettes for the movie. After the movie became a success, the MPAA demoted its rating to an R.

Based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy, the controversial film managed to gross $44 million—about $200 million by today’s standards. The movie saved the careers of its actors, producers, and Salt, who had been blacklisted and fallen on hard times. It also produced a hit song, Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Here are 15 facts about the landmark film.

1. John Schlesinger was reluctant to hire Dustin Hoffman.

Like everybody else, the filmmakers associated Dustin Hoffman with Benjamin Braddock, the clean-cut twentysomething he played in The Graduate. “The truth was, I saw The Graduate as a setback, because I was determined not to be a star,” Hoffman told the Los Angeles Times. Hoffman was doing Off Broadway performances during the casting of Midnight Cowboy, so Schlesinger checked him out in a play. Hoffman frequented an automat with fellow thespians Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall; one night Hoffman showed up there with a scruffy beard, disheveled clothes, and a Bowery accent. Schlesinger said to Hoffman, “Why Dustin, you do fit right in,” and he got the part.

2. Mike Nichols tried to talk Dustin Hoffman out of doing the movie.

Dustin Hoffman appears on the set of the film 'Midnight Cowboy' in 1969 in the USA
Dustin Hoffman stars in Midnight Cowboy (1969).
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Hot off the heels of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, Hoffman could’ve kept his romantic lead image up, but instead he opted to take a supporting part in Midnight Cowboy. “Mike Nichols, in fact, called me up,” Hoffman told Peter Travers. “And he says, ‘Are you crazy?’ He says, ‘I made you a star. This is an ugly character. It’s a supporting part to Jon Voight.’ He says, ‘What are you doing? Why are you sabotaging?’” But Hoffman stuck to his guns and took the role. “I love the fact I was trying to remain a character actor and that was my desire,” he said.

3. Jon Voight was cast only after the original actor was fired.

Jon Voight auditioned for the role of Joe Buck and really wanted the part, but the producers chose Michael Sarrazin, whose major claim to fame is the 1969 Jane Fonda film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? “Sometimes I would be offered a role and I would recommend somebody else—I was that kind of person,” Voight told Box Office Mojo. “Yet this one stopped me because the thing I was excited about for this piece wasn’t going to happen. I felt quite sick about it.”

Fortunately for Voight, the producers changed their minds when Sarrazin demanded more money. “It came back to looking at our screen tests back to back,” said Voight. “Apparently, Marion Dougherty, who was the casting director, was in the room and said, ‘Well, there’s no doubt who's the best actor.’ John Schlesinger said, ‘Who?’ And she said, ‘Jon Voight.’ Then, Dustin was called in to look at the tests and apparently he said, ‘When I look at my scene with Michael Sarrazin I look at myself—when I looked at my scene with Jon Voight, I look at Jon.’ That was a huge compliment. I think between these comments, that’s what tipped the balance and then John [Schlesinger] came forward, so I was very fortunate.”

4. Voight worked for scale.

Voight was so desperate to play Joe Buck that he worked for scale: “‘Tell them I'll do this part for nothing,’” Voight told The Telegraph. “They took me at my word, and they gave me minimum for Midnight Cowboy.” At the end of the shoot, they sent him a $14.73 bill for meals on the last day of filming.

5. Hoffman thought the movie would ruin his career.

The actor attended a preview of Midnight Cowboy and noticed “people walked out in droves.”

“Twenty minutes into that movie, Jon Voight has a gay sex scene in the balcony with a kid who was played by Bob Balaban, and people would get up at that point and just walk out of the theater,” Hoffman told Larry King. “We said, ‘We have big problems’ when we heard we got an X-rating and we thought this could end everybody’s career. As a matter of fact, I was talked into doing a movie I wished I hadn’t done, because they had me so frightened that I had buried myself and reversed whatever good The Graduate did.” Hoffman’s agent forced him to star with Mia Farrow in the romantic drama John and Mary to make him “look like a respectable person.”

6. Voight knew the film was destined to become a classic.

Voight and Schlesinger wrapped filming in Texas and Voight noticed how red the director’s face was. Voight thought Schlesinger was having a heart attack and asked him if he was okay. “He looked up at me and said, ‘What have we done? What will they think of us?’ After all, we had made a film about a dishwasher who lives in New York and f*cks a lot of women,” Voight told Esquire. “In the moment he’d finished it, he was shaking. All of a sudden, he saw it as banal and vulgar. He’s having an anxiety attack and I grabbed his shoulders to shake him out of it. I said, ‘John, we will live the rest of our artistic lives in the shadow of this great masterpiece.’ He said, ‘You think so?’ I said, ‘I’m absolutely sure of it.’ The only reason I said such an extravagant thing was because I wanted to get him out of it and nothing would take him out of it but that. But the statement turned out to be true.”

7. Voight and Hoffman were competitive with each other.

What made the chemistry between Hoffman and Voight work so well is they were constantly competing with one another. Hoffman became a movie star before Voight did, and that brought some jealousy to the set. “We were like Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard, two fighters going at it,” Hoffman told the Los Angeles Times. “We knew the movie depended on the bond between us. All through shooting, we’d say to each other, out of the side of our mouths, like a fighter in a clinch, ‘Buddy, is that the best you can do?’”

8. Hoffman placed pebbles in his shoe to acquire Ratso’s limp.

“Why pebbles? It’s not like you’re playing a role on Broadway for six months where you’re so used to it, limping becomes second nature,” Hoffman told Vanity Fair. “The stone makes you limp, and you don’t have to think about it.”

9. Schlesinger came out during the movie’s production.

In the late 1960s, one's sexuality wasn't often discussed in the open. But the British director fell in love with Michael Childers, who worked as his assistant on the movie. “We were one of Hollywood’s first out couples,” Childers told Vanity Fair. “He took me everywhere. I felt a little bit uncomfortable at times, but John never did. He said, ‘F*ck ‘em.’”

“John was totally torn up, because part of him wanted to just embrace this, and another part of him was in terror,” the film’s producer, Jerome Hellman, said. “He had these fantasies that if he were openly gay on a film set, that if he tried to give the crew an order, they would turn on him. I said to him, ‘John, look, you’re the director. It’s your movie. I’m the producer, but I’m your partner. There’s nobody who can challenge your authority. If someone speaks out of line to you, they’ll be fired the same minute.’”

10. The famous “I’m Walkin’ Here” line was improvised.

The scene in which Joe and Ratso attempt to walk across the street and almost get hit by a cab was filmed guerilla-style, with a camera in a van across the street. “It was a difficult scene, logistically, because those were real pedestrians and there was real traffic, and Schlesinger wanted to do it in one shot—he didn’t want to cut,” Hoffman explained. “He wanted us to walk, like, a half a block, and the first times we did it the signal turned red. Schlesinger was getting very upset. He came rushing out of the van, saying, ‘Oh, oh, you’ve got to keep walking.’ ‘We can’t, man. There’s f*cking traffic.’ ‘Well, you’ve got to time it.’”

They figured out how to properly time the walk but then almost got run over by a cab. “I guess the brain works so quickly, it said, in a split of a second, ‘Don’t go out of character,’” Hoffman said. “So I said, ‘I’m walking here,’ meaning, ‘We’re shooting a scene here, and this is the first time we ever got it right, and you have f*cked us up.’ Schlesinger started laughing. He clapped his hands and said, ‘We must have that, we must have that,’ and re-did it two or three times, because he loved it.”

11. Hoffman threw up on set while trying to cough.

Talk about Method: Ratso has a deadly cough (consumption), and in a particular scene Hoffman got sick in real life. “Because I was so nervous that I was going to come across fraudulent and not have the right cough, I tried to do the cough as realistically as I could,” Hoffman told Vanity Fair. “Each time, I tried to do it more realistically until, finally, I did it so realistically I threw up all over Jon. My lunch came up. All over his cowboy boots. Jon looked down. He said, ‘Man, why’d you do that?’ He thought I did it on purpose.”

12. Schlesinger didn’t think anybody would make the movie today.

In 1994, the director found himself at a dinner party with a studio executive. “I said, ‘If I brought you a story about this dishwasher from Texas who goes to New York dressed as a cowboy to fulfill his fantasy of living off rich women, doesn’t, is desperate, meets a crippled consumptive who later pisses his pants and dies on a bus, would you—’ and he said, ‘I’d show you the door,’” Vanity Fair reported in 2000.

13. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl pays tribute to Midnight Cowboy.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's 2015 Sundance hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl features two friends who turn The Criterion Collection movies into film school comedies. One of those films is Midnight Cowboy, renamed as 2:48 p.m. Cowboy. In the film, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler) portray Ratso and Buck, respectively.

Midnight Cowboy became my favorite movie,” Cyler said in a featurette on Greg and Earl’s films. “Now I can’t stop watching it. I’m addicted to it. I’ll be in my trailer. ‘RJ, whatcha doing?’ ‘Watching Midnight Cowboy with some ramen noodles right now.’ It’s just so quirky the way the parody was made, and not just because I got to wear a beautiful cowboy hat.”

14. There’s a speakeasy bar in Austin named after the film.

Midnight Cowboy the bar is located inside a former oriental massage parlor that was busted by the FBI, hence the seedy name. It has a red light—not a sign—outside to mark the place. In order to drink there, you need to make a reservation online, and when you get there, you buzz the box and give the password “Harry Craddock.” They have rules, though: no talking on your cell phone inside the bar, and no “excessive displays of public affection.”

15. A Chicago theater turned it into a stage production.

Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre puts on a lot of literary adaptations, and in 2016 they presented a stage version of Midnight Cowboy, based on the book.

Updated for 2019.

Game of Thrones Studio Tour Opening in Northern Ireland in 2020

Emilia Clarke stars in Game of Thrones
Emilia Clarke stars in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

In a move that only a super-popular series could pull off, it was announced last year that HBO’s Game of Thrones would be getting its own 110,000-square-foot tourist attraction in Northern Ireland (where much of the show has been filmed) featuring scenes, sets, and props from Westeros. And of course, fans were instantly interested.

While the initial plan was to open the attraction this year, that date has been pushed back and an expansion on the original concept has been added.

Linen Mill Studios in Banbridge, Ireland has partnered with Game of Thrones's creators to convert the studios into an exhibition. The sets were used for filming scenes in Winterfell and Castle Black, but the display will include props, costumes, live-action cosplayers, and set pieces representing all of the show’s locations.

While other interactive fan events have already been held, such as the display at SXSW and the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience, this will be the most extensive and in-depth experience for diehard fans of the series.

When asked about the possibility of bringing a similar attraction to the U.S., Jeff Peters, HBO’s vice president for licensing and retail, told The New York Times that there were no set plans yet, but, “it’s possible. We get pitched all the time, and we’re open to a lot of different opportunities.”

[h/t The A.V. Club]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER