Brits Attack at Arras

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 273rd installment in the series.

April 9, 1917: Brits Attack at Arras 

The German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917 didn’t derail Allied plans for a massive offensive in mid-April, as drawn up by the new French commander-in-chief, Robert Nivelle, an ambitious artillery officer who had been promoted to the top spot because of his successes at Verdun, including recapturing Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux (the previous French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, was kicked upstairs with an honorary position of Marshal of France, while General Petain, the architect of the original defense of Verdun, was sidelined for the moment).

Disregarding growing concern among French and British officers and civilians about the advisability of the strategy, Nivelle planned a multi-phased operation by four armies, depending on heavy artillery preparation and particularly a “creeping barrage” by French artillery, creating a curtain of destruction in front of the advancing infantry. Similar tactics had met with success at Verdun, prompting Nivelle to exclaim, “We have the formula!” But on the much larger scale of the Western Front, it proved a formula for disaster. 

The British were to play an important role in the “Nivelle Offensive” at the Battle of Arras (actually the second battle of that name), a major attack by the British First, Third, and Fifth Armies on the defensive lines of the German Sixth Army under Ludwig von Falkenhausen in the Pas de Calais region of northern France. The British attack was scheduled for April 9, 1917, a week ahead of the French attack, in hopes of pinning down German troops to prevent them from sending reinforcements. It included the famous advance by the Canadian Corps on Vimy Ridge from April 9-12, 1917, a stunning but costly victory; Vimy Ridge would come to be remembered as a key moment in the formation of Canadian national identity in some ways comparable to the impact of Gallipoli on veterans and civilians in Australia and New Zealand (whose ANZAC troops also fought at Arras).

The initial infantry assault was preceded by an unprecedented 19-day-long bombardment of German positions along 20 miles of front, ultimately expending around 2.7 million shells, including one million from April 2-9 alone. Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, described the bombardment on the final night before the battle: 

It was a beautiful and devilish thing… All our batteries, too many to count, were firing, and thousands of gun-flashes were winking and blinking from the hollows and hiding-places, and all their shells were rushing through sky as though flocks of great birds were in flight, and all were bursting over German positions, with long flames which rent the darkness and waved sword-blades of quivering light along the ridges. The earth opened, and pools of red fire gushed out. Star-shells burst magnificently, pouring down golden rain. Mines exploded east and west of Arras, and in a wide sweep from Vimy Ridge to Blangy southwards, and voluminous clouds, all bright with a glory of infernal fire, rolled up to the sky.

Gibbs also described the huge logistics effort and concentration of troops massing in the darkness for the offensive near Arras: 

… and then onwards there was the traffic of marching men going up to the fighting-lines, and of their transport columns, and of many ambulances. In darkness there were hundreds of little red lights, the glow of cigarette ends. Every now and then one of the men would strike a match, holding it in the hollow of his hands and bending his head to it, so that his face was illumined – one of our English faces, clear-cut and strong. The wind blew sparks from cigarette ends like fireflies. 

The first infantry assault was timed for 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917. Minutes before the men went over the top, the British, French and Canadian engineers unleashed one final surprise, as the German trenches were rocked by 13 mines exploding under Vimy Ridge. R. Derby Holmes, an American serving as a volunteer with the Canadians, remembered the detonations: 

Then came a deep rumble that shook the ground, and a dull boom. A spurt of blood-red flame squirted up from the near side of the hill, and a rolling column of gray smoke. Then another rumble, and another, and then the whole side of the ridge seemed to open up and move slowly skyward with a world-wrecking, soul-paralyzing crash. A murky red glare lit up the smoke screen, and against it a mass of tossed-up debris, and for an instant I caught the black silhouette of a whole human body spread-eagled and spinning like a pin-wheel. Most of our party, even at the distance, were knocked down by the gigantic impact of the explosion. A shower of earth and rock chunks, some as big as a barrel, fell around us.

Now along miles of front, under the faint, growing light of early morning the Canadian and British troops advanced into the blazing chaos behind the creeping barrage of artillery fire (below, a map showing the timing of the barrage). The infantry attacks had been carefully rehearsed at the battalion level using full-size dioramas, while officers had trained with a large-scale model of the entire battlefield, and the preparation paid off – as did the decision to arm the attackers with mobile Lewis machine guns, a move towards “storm troop” tactics.

Click to enlarge Wikimedia Commons 

To the north, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps in General Henry Horne’s First Army surged forward and forced back the German defenders on Vimy Ridge again and again, occupying their first main objectives within an hour and had occupied the crest of the ridge by mid-morning – a remarkable success which left their commanders scrambling to maintain the momentum. 

The capture of Vimy Ridge gave the Allies possession of the strategic heights looking out over the plain of Douai to the east – a key advantage in the chess-like game of artillery and counter-artillery fire. The Canadians would ultimately advance almost four kilometers in places from April 9-12, but later attacks in the Battle of Arras would pit them against dug-in defenders; by the end of the battle the Canadians had lost 10,500 killed (a large figure in proportion to the dominion’s total population of around 7.9 million). 

As storm after storm descended dumped rain, sleet and snow on the battlefield, mud was inescapable, according to Gibbs:

In addition to the ordeal of battle they are enduring now a weather so abominable, when it is in the fields of battle, that men fight for days wet to the skin, lie out at night frozen stiff, and struggle after the enemy up to the knees in mud… Our men came back from this fighting like figures of clay, and so stiff at the joints that they can hardly walk, and with voices gone so that they speak in whispers. All over this lower slope of the Vimy Ridge is a litter of enormous destruction caused by our gun-fire. German guns and limbers, machine-guns and trench-mortars lie in fragments and in heaps in infernal chao of earth, which is the graveyard of many German dead. 

Meanwhile the British Third Army, attacking in the center, also scored a surprising victory from April 9-14, advancing up to three miles along a 15-mile front stretching on both banks of the River Scarpe – along with the Canadian advance, the single biggest advance in years of trench warfare on the Western Front. But the Brits soon ran into fierce renewed German resistance around the village of Monchy, as the defenders of the Bavarian 3rd Division dug in while German engineers worked feverishly on new defensive lines in the rear. 

Billy Bishop, a British pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, described the view from the air (often obscured by thick fog and snow) as British artillery fired at Arras on April 9: 

The ground seemed to be one mass of bursting shells. Farther back, where the guns were firing, the hot flames flashing from thousands of muzzles gave the impression of a long ribbon of incandescent light. The air seemed shaken and literally full of shells on their missions of death and destruction. Over and over again one felt a sudden jerk under a wing-tip, and the machine would heave quickly. This meant a shell had passed within a few feet of you. 

The British bombardment succeeded in splitting open barbed wire defenses and blowing enemy strongholds out of existence, according to Bishop, who next witnessed a shockingly easy advance by British troops: 

The waves of attacking infantry as they came out of their trenches and trudged forward behind the curtain of shells laid down by the artillery were an amazing sight. The men seemed to wander across No Man’s Land, and into the enemy trenches, as if the battle was a great bore to them… That is the way with clockwork warfare. These troops had been drilled to move forward at a given pace.

To the south the picture was much grimmer, however, as the troops of the British Fifth Army got their first harsh taste of German defenses at the Hindenburg Line. The offensive around the village of Bullecourt from April 10-11 got off to a bad start when some British units, not hearing about a last-minute delay, attacked early – suffering a bloody repulse and giving away any element of surprise. This battle later saw the second major attempt to employ tanks in offensive warfare, after the Battle of the Somme, but this time the Germans were expecting them – including new armor-piercing shells – and once again the new weapon proved prone to technical failures. 

Major W.H.L. Watson described the mixed performance of one section of tanks employed in the first attack: 

The first tank was hit in the track before it was well under way. The tank was evacuated, and in the dawning light it was hit again before the track could be repaired. Money’s tank reached the German wire. His men must have “missed their gears.” For less than a minute the tank was motionless, then she burst into flames. A shell had exploded the petrol tanks… Bernstein’s tank was within reach of the German trenches when a shell hit the cab, decapitated the driver, and exploded in the body of the tank. 

Although they captured the village of Bullecourt itself, the British otherwise mostly failed to advance in the south, frustrated by the new German tactics of “defense in depth” along the Hindenburg Line. Meanwhile chief of the general staff Hindenburg and his collaborator, quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff, were frustrated by Falkenhausen’s failure to grasp the tenets of the new defensive doctrine, and replaced him on April 23. To the north the British and Canadian advances soon slowed as well, leaving them in possession of Vimy Ridge and the lower Scarpe but still far from Lens or Douai, and the utter failure of the French Nivelle Offensive soon removed any reason to continue the attack.

The advance at Arras was still tremendous by the standards of the First World War, and British engineers were working feverishly to repair roads across newly-conquered territory behind the lines – in many cases, what used to be No Man’s Land. Coningsby Dawson, an officer with a British engineering unit, later recalled in a letter home: 

We ran across what had been No Man’s Land end entered the Hun wire… His frontline trench was piled high with dead. The whole spectacle was unreal as something that had been staged; the corpses looked like wax-works. One didn’t have time to observe much, for flames seemed to be going off beneath one’s feet almost every second and it seemed marvellous that we contrived to live where there was so much death. As we went further back we began to find our own khaki-clad dead. I don’t think the Huns had got them; it was our own barrage, which they had followed too quickly in the eagerness of the attack. Then we came to where the liquid fire had descended, for the poor fellows had thrown themselves into the pools in the shell-holes and only the faces and arms were sticking out.

As another icy storm swept the battlefield, Dawson felt a moment of sympathy for recently captured German prisoners-of-war, whose condition summarized all too clearly the human cost of the war: 

You never saw such a mess – sleet driving in our faces, the ground hissing and boiling as shells descended, dead men everywhere, the wounded crawling desperately, dragging themselves to safety. I saw sights of pity and bravery that it is best not to mention, and all the time my brave chaps dug on, making the road for the guns. Soon through the smoke gray-clad figures came in tottering droves, scorched, battered, absolutely stunned. They looked more like beasts in their pathetic dumbness. One hardly recognised them as enemies.

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]

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