WWI Centennial: Nivelle Offensive Fails, Lenin Arrives In Petrograd

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 274th installment in the series. 

April 16, 1917: Nivelle Offensive Fails, Lenin Arrives In Petrograd 

The French General Robert Nivelle experienced a meteoric rise and fall in 1916 and 1917, soaring from his original position leading the Third Army Corps to command of the Second Army, then commander of all the French armies in northern France, before plunging to discredit and disgrace – all in a little over a year. The massive offensive that bore his name, launched on April 16, 1917, was supposed to be Nivelle’s crowning achievement, a master stroke that would shatter the German lines, end trench warfare and reopen the war of movement; instead, it was a disaster that nearly destroyed the French Army.

Nivelle’s rapid rise through the ranks reflected the desperation of France’s civilian leadership, as successive Ministers of War and the Chamber of Deputies cast about for anyone with a plausible plan to break out of the bloody stasis of trench warfare. Nivelle appeared to be just such a savior, having first captured the nation’s imagination amid the horror of Verdun, where he won fame for the stunning success of his push to retake Fort Douaumont, the strategic linchpin of the battle. 

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Nivelle’s victories at Verdun relied heavily on artillery. Like most of his peers, Nivelle was convinced that infantry assaults should be preceded by a punishing bombardment of enemy positions to break up barbed wire entanglements, flatten trenches, knock out machine guns, and put the opposing artillery out of action; after the infantry went over the top, bombardment of the enemy’s rear areas would disrupt communications and block reinforcements from arriving.

Nivelle went further by massing long-range artillery on a few narrow areas of front during the preparatory bombardment, in order to totally destroy German defenses to a depth of several miles, creating corridors of devastation through which French infantry could advance in relative safety behind a “rolling barrage.” The barrage – actually a double bombardment by both heavy artillery and 75-millimeter field guns – was intended to create a sweeping wall of fire in front of advancing infantry, forcing the enemy to take shelter or abandon their trenches, thus shielding the attacking troops from counterattacks.  If his plan worked, French infantry would be able to cross multiple German trench lines, now virtually undefended, and penetrate all the way to the enemy artillery, achieving a “breakthrough.” 

After this, the infantry would turn to the sides and attack the exposed enemy flanks in both directions, widening the breach even further and enabling fresh troops to rush forward and wreak havoc in the enemy’s rear. In fact, in addition to the three French armies making the main attack along the Aisne River near Reims (the Sixth, Fifth and Fourth) Nivelle held two entire armies, the Tenth and First, in reserve to exploit the planned breakthrough, hoping ultimately to reopen the “war of movement,” in which the Allied armies would cut off and destroy all the German forces in northern France. 

Last-Minute Doubts 

It was a breathtakingly ambitious plan, based on innovative tactics that had worked at Verdun, and Nivelle’s personal confidence and charisma helped persuade many French civilian leaders that the game was finally about to change. In fact the Nivelle Offensive was tragically out of step with reality, as some skeptics warned at the time, including Philippe Petain, who had organized the defense of Verdun and now commanded the Central Army Group, and Alfred Micheler, commander of the new Reserve Army Group, which would make the main attack. 

For one thing, Petain argued that Nivelle’s plan for concentrated bombardments, which had worked so well in the 40 square miles of the Verdun battlefield, was unworkable on the much larger scale of the Western Front: there just wasn’t enough long-range artillery to guarantee destruction of the enemy’s defenses in widely separated corridors. Further, the Germans had adopted a new defensive doctrine for the entire Western Front to counter this very threat, called “defense in depth.” 

Formulated by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his close collaborator, quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff, the new defensive strategy included the construction of a third and fourth line of trenches behind the existing ones, manned by troops freed up by the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Perhaps most importantly, the new doctrine minimized losses by moving troops back from the frontline trenches, holding them in reserve in the rear trenches, from which they could stage counterattacks on exhausted attackers. 

However Nivelle brushed these concerns aside, arguing that the British attack at Arras would help pin down German defenders – and warning that canceling the offensive would ruin the Allies’ first real attempt at close strategic coordination, making it unlikely the British would submit to French demands again. Meanwhile the Russian Revolution in March 1917 made it necessary to attack as soon as possible, before the Germans could take advantage of the chaos in Russia by shifting troops to the Western Front. Finally, Nivelle dismissed the idea that France should wait for help from the United States, noting (correctly) that American entry into the war wouldn’t have any real impact on the ground before 1918. While Petain continued to argue against the offensive, at their final meeting with Nivelle on April 6, 1917, France’s civilian leaders reluctantly agreed to proceed. 

“Worse Than Verdun” 

On April 9, 1917, the same day the British infantry went over the top at the Second Battle of Arras, 5,350 French artillery pieces of various sizes, including 1,650 heavy guns, began shelling German positions, firing an astonishing 11 million shells by May 5. At 6 a.m. on April 16, 1917, a total of 33 infantry divisions in the French Fifth and Sixth Armies, along with a smaller number of troops and 63 new Schneider tanks from the Fourth Army, attacked German positions on 45 miles of front along the Chemin des Dames (the “Ladies’ Road,” named for the path along the heights of the Aisne used by the daughters of Louis XV, and the battlefield where trench warfare began in 1914), preceded by the all-important creeping barrage. Ten more divisions in the Tenth Army waited to plunge into the breach behind them, bringing the total number of men involved to 1.2 million – if all went according to plan. 

It did not: almost immediately, it became clear that while long-range French artillery had succeeded in cutting corridors across the battlefield in some places, the Germans were frequently able to repair barbed wire entanglements before the French infantry attacked. Even worse, the Germans were expecting the attack, thanks to captured documents and aerial reconnaissance. And as at Arras – and so many First World War battles – bad weather just added the misery. 

The French attack was most successful on the right, where the Fifth Army advanced about six miles in its center by April 20, 1917, while the Sixth Army’s left wing advanced nearly four miles by the same time. The cost was astronomical, however, and everywhere else in the Aisne sector the French assault ran into a wall of German barbed wire and machine gun fire. One French tank officer painted a dramatic portrait of the initial assault:

It was still raining, and the already soft ground was progressively turning into sticky mud. How were we going to fare in such terrain at the time of the attack? Suddenly, a green star shell rose against the pale morning sky. It was followed by a second shell, but a red one… It was with deep emotion, in the dawn’s early light, that we saw at some distance the wave of tiny blue-coats rushing up the slopes of Mont Cornillet, whose top was shrouded by numerous explosions. We were holding our breath. Poignant moment! Our men’s wave, unbroken a moment ago, presently moved on in echelons, spread out again, and then progressed in a zigzag motion. Here and there, the men would crowd together without advancing, having met some obstacle we couldn’t see, most likely one of these accursed, still intact barbed wire networks. 

As the weather took a turn for the worse the first French wounded came streaming back, telling of hopeless attacks on impenetrable defenses, with heavy casualties:

A snow squall swept our position. Our first wounded soldiers were coming in, men from the 83rd Infantry Regiment. We gathered round them, and learned from them, that the enemy positions were very strong, the resistance desperate. One battalion did reach the top of the Cornillet… but it was decimated by fire from intact machine gun positions, and was unable to withstand the enemy’s counter-attack… “We just couldn’t keep moving,” an alert corporal shouted, while using his rifle as a crutch. “Too many blasted machine guns, against which there was nothing doing!”  “The Boches certainly knew we were going to attack there,” the lieutenant went on, “their trenches were jammed.” 

The first day of the Nivelle Offensive ended with over 40,000 French casualties (approaching the British toll of 53,000 on the first day of the Somme).  Over the next few days more appalling slaughter brought only minor gains, and by April 20 it was obvious the Nivelle Offensive had failed decisively. Fighting would continue until May 9, including a series of smaller operations to even out the line and secure observation posts, but by April 25 French civilian leaders were already planning to sideline Nivelle.

The debacle so complete that even mid-ranking officers were refusing to carry out orders for foolhardy attacks, according to the French soldier Louis Barthas, who noted one incident in his diary on April 19, 1917:

But fate had it that I would witness a conversation between our Colonel Robert and a general on horseback who told him, “Colonel, it’s your regiment’s turn to move up and attack. Head for the front line right away.” Our colonel yanked the pipe from his mouth, let fly a stream of saliva, and, to my great amazement, replied deliberately in a gruff voice, “General, look at these men and the state they’re in. Do you think they don’t know they’ve run into an insurmountable obstacle? The first day, they could have marched ahead. But not now. And me neither.” Not many colonels would have had the courage to make this kind of reply, to spare the lives of his men… 

The same officer objected again when ordered to attack a heavily fortified position on April 26, according to Barthas, who wrote: 

When the colonel learned about the mission assigned to his regiment, he rose up, eyes flashing furiously, in front of this parade-ground officer, and with a voice of thunder he roared to him… “Tell your general that he makes me mad as hell. I’ve had enough of these orders and counterorders the past week. Tell him that my regiment is not going to attack until the barbed wire has been blown to bits. Yes, and tell him that if I’m holding them up, let them come and tell me!”

But they were only able to avoid battle for so long. In late April Barthas took part in fierce fighting southeast of Reims: 

The Germans, having decimated our troops at the Chemin des Dames, brought up masses of artillery against us. They fired furiously upon our lines. It became worse than Verdun. I saw one soldier carried off, raving mad. The lieutenant commanding the 17th Company lost his wits and had to be evacuated. Right behind us, the 47th Regiment, which had ended up taking, or rather encircling, the German strongpoint, wasn’t able to capture all the defenders, who sought refuge in the underground corridors, no doubt expecting to be rescued in a counterattack by their own side. We blocked up all the exits with walls of sandbags and threw asphyxiating grenades into the strongpoint, which henceforth stood as silent as a tomb. Oh, isn’t war fine to behold?

In the first days of May, Barthas was present for a German counterattack, beginning as always with withering artillery bombardment: 

When we arrived at the wood’s edge, we stopped, terrified. Enormous, monstrous shells, more terrible than lightning bolts, were tearing up, shredding, decapitating giant, hundred-year-old trees. We saw them wrenched from the ground, twisted, and broken, as if by a giant cyclone. The whole forest seemed to be complaining, groaning, cracking under the blows of a Titan’s cudgel. Suddenly, from every corner of the wood, we saw artillerymen of the 47/2… fleeing as they had the Germans right on their coattails. “We’ve been sold out, betrayed!” they said. “As soon as we change our positions and camouflage them, they’re targeted and bombarded.” 

Altogether the ill-fated offensive cost France 187,000 casualties, including 29,000 killed and 118 tanks lost. The British contribution to the offensive, the Second of the Battle of Arras, cost France’s main ally on the Western Front 160,000 casualties, including killed, wounded and missing. On the opposing side, during the paired offensives the Germans suffered a total of 288,000 casualties in all categories, or about four-fifths the Allied total of 347,000. 

This brought total French losses in the war to date to around 3.3 million casualties, including a horrifying 1.2 million dead, equal to about 3% of its prewar population, and the country was now approaching the limits of its manpower. Unlike previous failures, no amount of Allied propaganda could persuade the French public the Nivelle Offensive was a success by any measure. Marjorie Crocker, an American serving as a volunteer nurse in France, struck a gloomy note in a letter home on July 4, 1917: “Every one now admits, even French officers, that the spring offensive was a failure, and the loss of life was something terrible, worse than Verdun; also that the Germans have the upper hand now in a military way.” 

It came as no surprise when the civilian leadership sidelined Nivelle in favor of Petain, the pragmatic pessimist of Verdun, who in May 1917 would find himself facing an even more dangerous task: quelling widespread mutinies in the French Army touched off by the disastrous defeat, which raised very real fears of revolution and defeat. 

Wresting Control of the Air 

Adding to the Allies’ woes, the month of April 1917 also brought a surge in German air power, as a new generation of German planes including the Halberstadt CL.II and Albatros D.Va, the latter armed with two machine guns, swept Allied aircraft from the sky. 

The onslaught was led by the German “ace” Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” whose “Flying Circus” (a group of 20-45 experienced fighter pilots, formally organized as the Jagdgerschwader 1, or “hunting wing” in June 1917) used wolf-pack tactics against outnumbered French and British rivals, scoring 644 kills of enemy planes over the course of the war. The unit adopted bright colors on their planes to ease identification in battle, although this also made them recognizable to enemy pilots, as Richthofen noted: 

It occurred to me to have my packing case painted all over in staring red. The result was that everyone got know my red bird. My opponents also seemed to have heard of the colour transformation… They were the first two Englishmen whom I had brought down alive. Consequently, it gave me particular pleasure to talk to them. I asked them whether they had previously seen my machine in the air, and one of them replied, “Oh, yes. I know your machine very well. We call it ‘Le petit Rouge.’” 

Richthofen alone scored 80 kills by the time of his death on April 21, 1918, sometimes claiming multiple victims in a single combat. He recalled one encounter on April 2, 1917: 

I was still in bed when my orderly rushed into the room and exclaimed: “Sire, the English are here!” Sleepy as I was I looked out of the window, and really there were my dear friends circling over the flying ground. My Red Bird had been pulled out, and was ready for starting… Suddenly one of the impertinent fellows tried to drop down upon me… After a short time I had got him beneath me… He tried to escape me. That was too bad. I attacked him again, and I went so low that I feared to touch the roofs of the houses of the village beneath me. The Englishman defended himself up to the last moment… He rushed at full speed right into a block of houses… My comrades were still in the air and they were very surprised, when we met at breakfast, when I told them that I had scored my thirty-second machine. 

Later that same day, Richthofen shot down another plane, although this time the pilot was lucky enough to survive and be taken prisoner: 

Although there were nine Englishmen and although they were on their own territory they preferred to avoid battle. I thought that perhaps it would be better for me to repaint my machine. Nevertheless I caught up with them. The important thing in aeroplanes is that they shall be speedy… My opponent did not make matters easy for me. He knew the fighting business, and it was particularly awkward for me that he was a good shot… A favourable wind came to my aid. It drove both of us into the German lines. My opponent discovered that the matter was not as simple as he had imagined. So he plunged, and disappeared into a cloud… I plunged after him and dropped out of the cloud and, as luck would have it, found myself close behind him… At last I hit him. I noticed a ribbon of white petrol vapour. He must land, for his engine had come to a stop… 

Losses in the Allied air forces reflected the new German air supremacy: the number of French and Belgian planes shot down more than doubled from around 75 in March to 201 in April 1917, while the number of British planes shot down soared from 120 to 316, including 75 lost in four brutal days from April 4-8 during the lead-up to Arras. Although both the French and British were hurrying production of new planes, including the French SPAD S.XIII and the British S.E.5, F.2.B. Bristol, and Sopwith Camel fighters, for the time being the Germans controlled the skies over the Western Front, including the Aisne sector. 

Lenin Arrives In Petrograd, Mass Desertions From Russian Armies 

Some 1,300 miles to the east, the Russian Revolution took another in a series of dramatic turns with the return from exile of the Bolshevik leader Lenin to Petrograd, adding another volatile element to the already combustible mix, as the Provisional Government competed with the Petrograd Soviet for legitimacy and authority. 

Lenin’s journey from Zurich to Petrograd was made possible by German intelligence operatives, who advised the government to provide transportation for Lenin and several dozen other Russian radicals, in the hopes that they would make trouble for Russia’s new Provisional Government,  thus paralyzing the Russian war effort. The German military arranged a special sealed train for Lenin and his compatriots across Germany to the Baltic, where the party took a ferry to Sweden. From here they proceeded by train to the Finnish border, where they crossed over into Russian territory in sleighs before boarding another train to Petrograd, arriving there on April 16. 

Immediately on returning to Petrograd, Lenin launched an attack on two fellow Bolsheviks, Stalin and Kamenev, for articles published in the party newspaper, Pravda, advocating cooperation with the Provisional Government. Scarcely off the train, Lenin lashed out: “‘What have you people been writing in Pravda ? We saw several issues and were very angry with you…” Lenin clearly meant to take a much more confrontational stance towards the “capitalist” regime, as revealed in his “April Theses,” which openly advocated the immediate overthrow of the parliamentary government, the end of the war, and “All power to the Soviets!” 

For all his pandering, Lenin’s program met with a skeptical response when he presented it to the Soviet in a speech at the Tauride Palace (above), where his proposals were greeted with heckling and boos; one deputy exclaimed that they were the “ravings of a madman.” Clearly, the time wasn’t yet ripe for Lenin’s planned second revolution. But the situation was rapidly becoming more favorable, thanks in part to a huge increase in the number of deserters streaming back from the Eastern Front to civilian areas. Desertion was nothing new in the Russian Army, with over a million men roaming the countryside and big cities by the end of 1916, but it rose sharply in the wake of the revolution, especially once the authority of officers to punish men was abolished. The president of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzyanko, estimated an additional 1.5 million men deserted in 1917, and some estimates put the number as high as two million for the year. Over a million more would join them in 1918 (below, a Russian soldier tries to stop a deserter). 

Despite the risk of execution, desertion was a fairly common event in all the armies fighting the First World War, with around 150,000 deserters from the German Army, 240,000 from the British and Commonwealth armies, 250,000 from the Habsburg Army (in large part reflecting Austria-Hungary’s myriad ethnic tensions) and an incredible 500,000 from the forces of the Ottoman Empire, or nearly one in five Turkish recruits. 

Of course, these numbers aren’t surprising in view of the extreme psychological duress experienced by most soldiers in the trenches, which also manifested in the growing incidence of “shell shock” (now recognized as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder). In 1917 a German psychiatrist describe a typical case of shellshock: 

Case 421. Officer at the age of 25… In 1917 dugout blocked by a direct hit. Tried to dig himself out with his comrades. These comrades were slowly losing their energy. They died presumably through suffocation. The patient cannot specify the way they died. He also felt the growing lack of breath. A second shell opened the blocked dugout, which saved the patient. Since then states of nervous anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, general nervousness. Patient feels repeatedly breathless, thinks he has to die from suffocation.

Amid these horrors, the risk of execution often paled next to the prospect of further suffering. In many places desertion was relatively easy, especially in rural areas with minimal administration and policing. In many circumstances desertion was a desperate final resort for low-ranking soldiers who were powerless against abusive officers. These deserters weren’t necessarily disloyal, but were liable to extreme penalties just the same, as reflected in a diary entry by the British soldier Edward Roe for December 11, 1915, describing an execution in Gallipoli:

Execution of Private Salter at 7.15 am. This youth barely 19 years of age was shot by twelve of his comrades for taking “French Leave” from his Regiment on two occasions and attaching himself to the Anzacs. Not by any stretch of the imagination could my comrades or I catalogue it as desertion, as ‘twas impossible to desert from the Peninsula even had he so desired. Our position in comparison to the position that the Anzacs held was as heaven compared to hell. He therefore did not seek safety; he absconded because his life was made a hell by the CSM [Company Sergeant Major] of my Company [“D”]. In barrack room parlance he was “sat upon”. I was one of the firing party; he was marched from a dugout about 80 yards away, to a kind of disused quarry where the final scene was enacted… The doomed youth was tied up to a stake, his grave already dug. His last request was, “Don’t blindfold me”. 

Another British officer, T.H. Westmacott, recorded an execution for desertion in April 1916: 

The man had deserted when his battalion was in the trenches and had been caught in Paris. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was remitted, and he was sent back to his battalion. He did so well in the trenches that he was allowed leave to England. He deserted again, and after being arrested was sent back to his battalion in France, where he was again sentenced to death. This time he was shot… The condemned man spent the night in a house about half a mile away. He walked from there blindfolded with the doctor, the parson and the escort. He walked quite steadily on to the parade, sat down in the chair, and told them not to tie him too tight. A white disc was pinned over his heart. He was the calmest man on the ground… On the word “Fire!” the man’s head fell back, and the firing party about turned at once… The company was then marched off. The body was wrapped in a blanket, and the APM saw it buried in a grave which had been dug close by, unmarked and unconsecrated. 

Altogether the British Army executed 306 soldiers for desertion and other crimes over the course of the war, while the French executed 918 and the Italians 750. The low number of executions in proportion to total incidents suggests that military officials were generally inclined to leniency whenever possible, doubtless out of fear of stirring up resentment among civilian relatives. In fact, some soldiers were chronic deserters, like the incorrigible Edward Casey, an Irish Cockney in the British Army, who cheerfully admitted to deserting whenever he got the chance in his memoirs. Casey recalled facing a drumhead tribunal after one incident: 

Later, I was standing before the OC [Officer Commanding] and the Batt. Sgt. Major read the charge, “Absent without leave. How do you plead?” [I said] “I admit I went for a little walk.” “Little walk!” roared the Sgt Major, “ten miles! You were running away! Right Casey, you are sentenced to five days Field Punishment No. One.” I said to myself, “That’s better than the front.” As usual I was wrong again… They varied the punishment. The first day I was placed on the ground. The guard then got tent pegs, with ropes attached… I was spread-eagled for one hour in the morning and one at night… Twice daily I was subjected to this punishment and, for variation, my wrists were handcuffed to my ankles. 

Deliberate self-injury was another popular gambit to escape service in the frontline, although it required special care to make it look like the wounds had been inflicted by enemy fire. Edward Roe, a British soldier stationed in Mesopotamia, wrote in his diary on February 8, 1917, wrote of an unsuccessful attempt: 

Two weak willed men who were unable to stand the strain shot themselves through the hearts of their left hands this morning. They were lacking in foresight, as they did not use a folded sandbag or a first aid dressing over the muzzles of the rifles, with the result that all around their wounds the flesh was badly scorched with cordite. This gave the ‘show away’. The empty cases were also found in the chambers of their rifles. Owing to shock they failed to unload. Blowing trigger fingers and big toes off is getting ‘played out’. Those wounds were inflicted with a view to getting away from the firing line. 

Resistance could also take a number of less dramatic forms, including lollygagging and cowardice on the battlefield. Paul Hub, a low-ranking German officer, described one incident at the Somme in September 1916, when his men suddenly proved hard to locate: 

We must have lost 40 per cent of our company today. Many of my men were so exhausted that I couldn’t get them to do anything. I ordered an NCO to follow me but he threatened to shoot me. I had him arrested. We were then ordered to defend Combles and dig trenches in the open, but it was almost impossible to persuade even a few of the men to come with me. As soon as I got them out of one ditch, they simply disappeared into another. We had managed to collect a few men when the firing restarted and they all disappeared again. There are no trenches here, only craters with waterproof covers pulled over the top. The men knew this and were reluctant to submit themselves to almost certain death. 

In extreme cases, disobedience might escalate to “fragging,” or the murder of officers by their own troops. While hardly widespread, and harshly punished whenever possible, the practice was not unknown – and in some cases the murderers got away with it. Louis Barthas recalled an incident in which French soldiers lynched military police officers when the latter stopped them from going AWOL to buy food: 

But this zeal in carrying out such a rigorous and absurd duty irritated the poilus, who went out in groups and administered some hard knocks to the gendarmes with stout clubs. But these reprisals went too far. One day they found two gendarmes swinging from the branches of a pine tree, with their tongues hanging out… Far up the chain of command, they were moved by this incident. At roll call, for three days straight, they read and reread a note from the general-en-chef praising the tough and thankless job that the brave gendarmes carry out, earning the respect of all. The officers couldn’t repress the guffaws and sarcastic comments which welcomed this reading. “If they find their jobs too tough and thankless,” said a voice, “then they should come up to an outpost one time.” 

Occasionally the attackers killed the wrong victim, according to the British author Robert Graves, who recorded one bloody mishap on May 23, 1915: 

Two young miners, in another company, disliked their sergeant, who had a down on them and gave them all the most dirty and dangerous jobs. When they were in billets he crimed them for things they hadn’t done; so they decided to kill him. Later, they reported at Battalion Orderly Room and asked to see the Adjutant… Smartly slapping the small-of-the-butt of their sloped rifles, they said: “We’ve come to report, Sir, that we’re very sorry, but we’ve shot our company sergeant-major.” The adjutant said: “Good heavens, how did that happen?” “It was an accident, Sir.” “What do you mean, you damn fools? Did you mistake him for a spy?” “No, Sir, we mistook him for our platoon sergeant.” So they were both court-martialled and shot by a firing-squad of their own company against the wall of a convent at Béthune.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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19 Surprising Facts About The Dark Knight
© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Christopher Nolan didn’t set out to make sequels. As the director of hit thrillers like Memento and Insomnia, his personal style never seemed to mesh with the idea of helming a mega-franchise. After reenvisioning the Caped Crusader with 2005’s Batman Begins, though, Nolan couldn’t stop thinking about how his version of Batman would respond to the introduction of The Joker. The result was The Dark Knight, a hyper-real exploration of how chaos shakes up the mission of the righteous, complete with huge stars, incredible stunts, and an Oscar-winning performance by the late Heath Ledger. To revisit this landmark movie, which was released 10 years ago, here are 19 fascinating facts about The Dark Knight.

1. IT HAS MANY COMIC BOOK INSPIRATIONS.

While it doesn’t adapt any one specific story to the screen, The Dark Knight did draw inspiration from several specific Batman stories in the pages of DC Comics. When researching and writing the film, director Christopher Nolan and his brother, co-writer Jonathan Nolan, specifically went back to The Joker’s very first appearance in 1940’s Batman #1 in search of how best to introduce the character. Co-writer David S. Goyer, himself a DC Comics contributor, also cites the classic stories The Long Halloween, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Killing Joke as keys to his research, with elements from each making their way into the film.

2. THE JOKER ALSO HAD DIVERSE INSPIRATIONS.

Heath Ledger in 'The Dark Knight' (2008)
© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In addition to classic Joker stories like The Killing Joke, Nolan and star Heath Ledger drew on a diverse array of influences both in and out of comics to craft the film’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Before attempting to write the character, the Nolan brothers revisited Fritz Lang’s classic film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse as a study in how to write supervillains. Visually, Nolan also specifically cited the work of painter Francis Bacon as a touchstone for Joker’s distorted view of the world.

As for Ledger, he famously locked himself away in a hotel room for weeks, experimenting with voices and mannerisms until he developed something he was satisfied with. Among his inspirations: Sex Pistols icons Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious and the anarchist character Alex from Stanley Kubrick’s classic film A Clockwork Orange.

3. NOLAN WAS INITIALLY RELUCTANT TO MAKE A SEQUEL.

The Dark Knight is the first Christopher Nolan film to be a sequel, and though Batman Begins ends with Gordon handing Batman the Joker card as a kind of setup for the next film, the director wasn't exactly determined to return to Gotham City. Nolan and Goyer had ideas for how a trilogy of films would happen, of course, but after Batman Begins hit big, Nolan instead went off to make magician drama The Prestige. Ultimately, the lure of telling a Joker story proved too enticing for Nolan to pass up, and he eventually re-teamed with Goyer to begin mapping out the story that would become The Dark Knight

“I didn’t have any intention of making a sequel to Batman Begins and I was quite surprised to find myself wanting to do it,” Nolan told Empire Magazine. “I just got caught up in the process of imagining how you would see a character like The Joker through the prism of what we did in the first film.”

4. HEATH LEDGER WAS THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY THE JOKER.

Though other stars like Adrien Brody expressed an interest in playing the film’s key villain, Heath Ledger was the only name on Nolan’s wish list.

“When I heard he was interested in the Joker, there was never any doubt. You could just see it in his eyes,” Nolan told Newsweek. “People were a little baffled by the choice, it's true, but I've never had such a simple decision as a director.” 

5. YES, HEATH LEDGER REALLY DID KEEP A JOKER DIARY.

Because of the actor’s untimely death in January 2008, at the age of just 28, Ledger's performance as The Joker has been somewhat mythologized by fans, so the idea that he kept a secret “Joker diary” while getting into character might sound apocryphal. In fact, Ledger really did make a diary while preparing to play the character. It included various clipped art (Alex from A Clockwork Orange figures heavily), stylized notes, and even lines from the script recopied in his own handwriting. In 2013, Ledger’s father Kim revealed the diary in a documentary, and noted that his son did immersive work like this for every role but “really took it up a notch” for The Joker.

6. MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL WASN’T THE ONLY ACTRESS CONSIDERED FOR RACHEL DAWES.

For the role of Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend and current Gotham City assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes, Nolan had to look for a replacement. Katie Holmes played the role in 2005’s Batman Begins, but opted out of the sequel ostensibly so she could act in the comedy Mad Money. So Nolan went in search of other actresses and ultimately decided on Maggie Gyllenhaal for the role. Gyllenhaal was the final choice, but she wasn’t the only one. Other actresses up for the role included Rachel McAdams and Emily Blunt.

7. GYLLENHAAL TOOK THE ROLE BASED ON NOLAN’S PRESENCE ALONE.

For many actors, the prospect of starring in a sequel to a hit film is a major draw. For others, the prospect of finally being a part of a Batman film would do the trick. For Gyllenhaal, who stepped in as Rachel Dawes, there was only one key reason to say yes: Christopher Nolan.

“When Chris approached me about the film, it was almost incidental that it was about Batman,” Gyllenhaal said. “I was lured into becoming intrigued by the character through the process of making the movie. From the very beginning, Chris was so interesting and engaging—and so interested in me and my ideas about Rachel—that I wanted to be a part of it.”

8. AARON ECKHART WASN’T THE ONLY STAR CONSIDERED FOR HARVEY DENT.

Though The Dark Knight is unquestionably a Batman movie, Nolan and company didn’t consider the Caped Crusader to be the film’s main character.

“Bruce Wayne was the protagonist of the first film,” Goyer said, “but we decided early on that he would not be the protagonist of the second film—that, in fact, Harvey Dent would be.”

To that end, finding the right actor to play Gotham’s district attorney was crucial. Nolan ultimately chose Aaron Eckhart, who reminded him of Robert Redford, to play the part, but Eckhart wasn’t the only star considered. Other potential Harvey Dents included Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, and Ryan Phillippe.

9. MICHAEL CAINE DIDN’T THINK THE FILM WOULD WORK ... UNTIL LEDGER WAS CAST.

Batman fans weren’t the only skeptics when it came to Nolan’s decision to deliver a new cinematic Joker. Michael Caine, who played Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred, was very apprehensive when  Nolan told him The Dark Knight’s villain would indeed be the Clown Prince of Crime, namely because Jack Nicholson’s performance as the character in 1989’s Batman still cast a very large shadow.

“You don’t try and top Jack,” Caine said.

When Nolan informed Caine that Ledger had been cast in the role, though, the film legend came around.

“I thought: ‘Now that’s the one guy that could do it!’ [laughs] My confidence came back. And then when I did this sequence with Heath, I knew we were in for some really good stuff.

10. THE JOKER’S SCARS WERE INSPIRED BY A REAL PERSON.

Nolan deliberately resisted the idea of giving The Joker an origin story in the film, opting instead to portray him as a force of pure anarchy with no discernible motivation other than chaos. For this reason, the character’s scarred face—as opposed to the chemically-induced frozen grin given to the character’s previous movie incarnation—had no clear source. In fact, the character deliberately tells different stories to different characters to explain where the scars came from. As a result, prosthetics supervisor Conor O’Sullivan was driven to take inspiration for the scars from real life. So, he used an actual man on the street as a reference.

“I immediately thought of the punk and skinhead era and some unsavory characters I had come across during this time,” O'Sullivan recalled. “The terminology for this type of wound is a ‘Glasgow’ or ‘Chelsea smile.’ My references had to be real. A delivery of fruit machines was made to the estate near my workshop and the man delivering them had a ‘Chelsea smile.' I plucked up the courage to ask him for a photo and he told me the story of how he had got his scars while being involved with “a dog fight”; needless to say I didn't pursue the matter, but the photos proved to be very useful reference.”

11. LEDGER LICKED HIS LIPS BECAUSE OF THE JOKER PROSTHETICS.

One of the most identifiable characteristics of Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker is the way he almost constantly licks his lips inside and out, probing his scars with his tongue over and over again. It adds energy to the character as well as a certain menacing quality, but it apparently was not planned. According to dialect coach Gerry Grennell, who worked with Ledger on the film, that tic arose because the scar prosthetics—which extended into Ledger’s mouth—would loosen as he performed. So, he licked his lips repeatedly in an effort to keep them in place.

"The last thing that Heath wanted to do was go back and spend another 20 minutes or half hour trying to get the lips glued back again, so he licked his lips. A lot,” Grennell recalled. “And then slowly, that became a part of the character.

12. THE MOVIE MADE IMAX HISTORY.

Though IMAX cameras are now on the verge of being used to shoot entire feature films, at the time The Dark Knight was made, the format was primarily used for documentary films to showcase things like the wondrous detail of nature. Nolan had longed for years to bring the format to features, and opted to use the ultra-heavy, ultra-expensive cameras to film several major sequences in The Dark Knight. Most famously, the film’s prologue—featuring The Joker’s bank robbery—was filmed on IMAX and released early, in its entirety, as a teaser.

13. THE JOKER FREAKED CAINE OUT SO MUCH, HE FORGOT HIS LINES.

For the scene in which Bruce Wayne is hosting a fundraiser for Harvey Dent in his elegant Gotham City townhouse, Ledger and a group of Joker goons were meant to burst into the party via the elevator. Caine, as Alfred, was supposed to be there waiting to greet guests as the elevator doors opened, only to be frightened by the appearance of The Joker. Caine was there waiting, the elevator doors opened, and he was apparently so frightened by what he saw that any lines he was meant to deliver during the scene completely left his mind.

"I was waiting for Batman's guests, but (the Joker) had taken over the elevator with—he has seven dwarfs and ... oh! wait until you see them,” he said while promoting the film. “So, I'd never seen any of it and the elevator door opened and they came out and I forgot every bloody line. They frightened the bloody life out of me.”

14. THE TRUCK FLIPPING SEQUENCE WAS DONE FOR REAL.

Embracing the hyperrealism of his version of Batman, Nolan opted to do many of The Dark Knight’s biggest stunts practically rather than relying on CGI. That includes arguably the biggest and most visually staggering stunt in the film: When Batman uses steel cables to flip The Joker’s 18-wheeler trailer over cab in the middle of a Gotham street. While another filmmaker might have opted to recreate the moment with computers or models, Nolan wanted to do it for real, on a real Chicago street. The task of pulling it off fell to special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, who ran tests in a more isolated area to ensure the flip wouldn’t harm any member of the crew or any neighboring buildings. With the tests successful, the production was primed to film the stunt … though Corbould still tried to talk Nolan into scaling it down.

“It was a funny thing—and this is always the way working with Chris—where he kept trying to talk me into a smaller vehicle,” Nolan said. “He said, ‘Can't it be one of those SWAT vans, not an articulated truck?!’ I kind of went along with that for a while and we storyboarded it that way and kept talking about it. And I finally just went to him and said, ‘Chris, you can do this, you're fine. It's gotta be a huge truck, it's gotta be a big 18-wheeler,’ and he went ‘Oh, all right,’ in that way he does, and he figured out a way to do it. Nobody had ever done it before and it was really a pretty amazing thing to watch."

15. CHRISTIAN BALE PERCHED ON SKYSCRAPERS HIMSELF AS BATMAN.

One of the most beautiful shots in the film finds Batman, cape billowing around him, perched atop Chicago’s Sears Tower as he surveys his city. It’s a gorgeous image, but also one that easily could have been carried out by a stuntman so Bale didn’t have to take the risk. The star was having none of that. When he found out his stuntman Buster Reeves was preparing to perform the perch, Bale rushed to convince Nolan that he should be the one to stand 110 stories above Chicago for the helicopter shot. 

“It was important for me to do that shot,” Bale explained, “because I wanted to be able to say I did it. 

Bale also opted to perform a similar stunt in which Batman stands on a ledge of the IFC2 building in Hong Kong. By then, he was quite comfortable with the height. 

16. BALE COULDN’T MANAGE THE BATPOD. 

One of the great visual hallmarks of Nolan’s Batman films is the introduction of the Batpod, The Dark Knight’s sleek motorcycle. While it may look like an oversized version of any other bike, the pod didn’t handle the same way, so a specially trained stunt driver was required. Jean-Pierre Goy was the man. He took to the vehicle immediately and trained for months to master the high-speed sequences required for the film. Bale, who was more than willing to volunteer to drive the Batpod, was ultimately only able to ride it when it was attached to camera rigs.

“Jean-Pierre was the only one who could master it,” Bale admitted. “Everybody else just fell off instantly.”

17. THE FILM INCLUDES A SMALL TRIBUTE TO LEDGER’S DAUGHTER.

For the scene in which The Joker sneaks into a panicked Gotham hospital to see Harvey Dent, Ledger dressed up in a nurse’s uniform. If you look closely, you’ll see that the nurse’s name tag reads “Matilda.” Matilda is Ledger’s daughter, who was born in 2005.

18. A SITTING U.S. SENATOR MADE A CAMEO.

When The Joker and his goons crash Bruce Wayne’s fundraising party, almost everyone in the room is intimidated into silence. One man, though, is not. He tells The Joker “we’re not intimidated by thugs,” and The Joker then grabs him and holds a knife to his mouth. That man is Patrick Leahy, the Democratic U.S. Senator from Vermont. A lifelong comic book fan, Leahy has appeared in five Batman films to date, including 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where he sat alongside actress Holly Hunter in a congressional hearing.

19. THE MAYOR OF A CITY CALLED “BATMAN” SUED THE PRODUCTION.

Weird lawsuits surrounding major motion pictures are nothing new, but The Dark Knight inspired a particularly strange one. In late 2008, after the film had opened to rapturous critical acclaim and enormous box office success, Huseyin Kalkan—the mayor of Batman, Turkey—sued Nolan and Warner Brothers for what he deemed a negative impact the film had caused on his city.

"There is only one Batman in the world. The American producers used the name of our city without informing us."

Needless to say, given that Batman is still as popular as ever, the suit didn’t go anywhere.

Additional Source:
The Art and Making of The Dark Knight Trilogy, by Jody Duncan Jesser and Janine Pourroy

10 Things That Went Disastrously Wrong on Disneyland’s Opening Day

Disneyland is commonly known as the “Happiest Place on Earth,” but when the park opened on July 17, 1955, it didn’t live up to its now-ubiquitous nickname. In fact, Disney employees who survived the day refer to it as “Black Sunday.” Here are 10 of the most disastrous things that went wrong.

1. FAKE TICKETS FLOODED THE PARK.

Disneyland’s opening day was “invite only” and not for public consumption. Tickets were mailed out and only reserved for special guests, including friends and family of employees, the press, and celebrities, such as Jerry Lewis, Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra. However, scores of counterfeit tickets were widespread on opening day. Disneyland was only expecting about 15,000 guests in total, but more than 28,000 people entered the park.

In addition, there were two sets of tickets with designated times: one for the morning and one for the afternoon. The time to leave Disneyland was printed on each ticket, so if it read 2:30 p.m., you were supposed to leave the park at that time to make way for the afternoon ticket holders to come in. Unfortunately, the morning ticket crowd didn’t leave, so attendance ballooned when the afternoon attendees were admitted.

There was even some money to be made from Disney's woes: one man set up a ladder outside one of the park's fences and charged $5 per person to climb it and sneak in.

2. TRAFFIC WAS BACKED UP FOR MILES.

Sukarno riding mini car with Walt Disney
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Since Disneyland and the city of Anaheim were not prepared for the amount of people that showed up, California's Santa Ana Freeway that led into the park was backed up for seven miles. The traffic essentially shut down the freeway for hours. In fact, people were in their cars for so long that when they finally made it to Disneyland, there were reports of families taking restroom breaks in the parking lot and on the side of the freeway.

3. THE PARK WAS COVERED WITH WET PAINT AND WEEDS.

Completing Disneyland was a race to the finish. Walt Disney wanted a quick turnaround, and it took exactly one year and one day from announcement to opening day, with construction crews working around-the-clock to meet their deadlines. 

However, once the doors opened, guests could easily see that it was not completely finished. Workers were still painting structures and planting trees all over the park. Along the Canal Boats of the World (now the Storybook Land Canal Boats), weeds had yet to be removed from the riverbanks. And instead of landscaping the area, Walt Disney simply added signs with Latin plant names printed on them to make it look like they were meant to be there.

In addition, a number of rides were still under construction like Tomorrowland’s Rocket to the Moon, which showed a glimpse of what routine space travel would look like in the distant future of ... 1986.

4. NO FOOD, NO DRINK, NO FUN.

For the lucky people who made it into Disneyland on opening day, they experienced a shortage of food and beverages in every restaurant and concession stand in the park. Because of the unexpected influx of guests, virtually all food and drink inventory was wiped out within hours.

5. THERE WAS A PLUMBERS' STRIKE.

Entrance to Disneyland circa 1957
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

While there were plenty of water fountains on site, many of them were not working because of a plumbers’ strike during construction. Walt Disney had to choose between working water fountains or working restrooms for Disneyland on opening day, so he picked the latter because he felt the toilets were more important.

“A few weeks before the opening, there was a major meeting,” Dick Nunis, chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, explained to WIRED. “There was a plumbing strike. I’ll never forget this. I happened to be in the meeting. So the contractor was telling Walt, ‘Walt, there aren’t enough hours in the day to finish the restrooms and to finish all the drinking fountains.’ And this is classic Walt. He said, ‘Well, you know they could drink Coke and Pepsi, but they can’t pee in the streets. Finish the restrooms.’”

6. THE WEATHER WAS SCORCHING.

Although Walt Disney had no control over the weather, it contributed to the disastrous opening day experience at Disneyland. Temperatures reached an intense 100 degrees, which must have been unbearable in a park without working water fountains. The day was so hot that the fresh asphalt became like a sticky tar, with guests complaining that they were getting their shoes and high heels stuck in the pavement of Main Street, U.S.A.

7. THE RIDES WERE BREAKING DOWN.

Like so many of the other workers toiling to make Walt Disney's one-year deadline, both Disney Imagineers and construction workers rushed to complete the theme park. As a result, a number of rides—including Peter Pan’s Flight, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant in Fantasyland—broke down or were closed altogether because they simply were not finished yet.

The growing pains didn’t stop on opening day. During the first few weeks after opening, the stagecoach ride in Frontierland permanently closed when it was discovered it would flip over if it was too top-heavy; 36 cars in Autopia crashed due to aggressive driving (ironically the ride was designed to help children learn respectful rules of the road); and a tiger and a panther escaped from the circus attraction, which resulted in a “furious death struggle” between the animals on Main Street, U.S.A.

8. THE MARK TWAIN RIVERBOAT SANK.

The iconic Mark Twain Riverboat in Frontierland was filled way over capacity on opening day, with about 500 people cramming into the attraction. This caused the boat to go off its track and sink in the mud, but the ordeal was far from over.

"It took about 20 to 30 minutes to get it fixed and back on the rail and it came chugging in," Terry O'Brien, who was working the ride on opening day, later recalled in an interview. "As soon as it pulled up to the landing, all the people rushed to the side to get off, and the boat tipped into the water again, so they all had to wade off through the water, and some of them were pretty mad."

9. SLEEPING BEAUTY’S CASTLE ALMOST CAUGHT FIRE.

A gas leak in the park prompted the closing of Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland for a few hours, while flames from the leak were seen trying to engulf Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Walt Disney was so busy during opening day that he didn’t learn about the fire until the following day.

10. ABC'S LIVE SHOW FROM DISNEYLAND WAS A TRAIN WRECK.

Walt Disney had a partnership with the broadcast network ABC, which helped finance Disneyland with an investment of $5 million of the park’s $17 million price tag. In return, Walt Disney would host a weekly TV show about what people could expect to see in Disneyland, a full year before it was set to open its doors.

On opening day, Walt Disney hosted a 90-minute live TV special with co-hosts Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and future president Ronald Reagan. Over 90 million viewers tuned in to see the “Happiest Place on Earth.” And while the cameras showed the fun and excitement of Disneyland, the TV special obscured the numerous disasters described above.

However, the live broadcast itself was riddled with technical difficulties, such as guests tripping over camera cables all over the park, faulty miscues, on-air flubs, hot mics, and unexpected moments that were caught on camera—namely Bob Cummings caught making out with a dancer just before going on air.

“This is not so much a show, as it is a special event,” Art Linklater said during the live broadcast from Disneyland. “The rehearsal went about the way you'd expect a rehearsal to go if you were covering three volcanoes all erupting at the same time, and you didn't expect any of them. So, from time to time, if I say, ‘We take you now by camera to the snapping crocodiles in Adventureland,’ and instead, somebody pushes the wrong button, and we catch Irene Dunne adjusting her bustle on the Mark Twain, don't be too surprised.”

The live broadcast also featured the debut of the original Mouseketeers from The Mickey Mouse Club TV show, which premiered a few months later in 1955 on ABC. So at least something positive came out of all of it.

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