Battle of Arras

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 147th installment in the series. 

October 1-6, 1914: Battle of Arras 

Following the Battles of Picardy and Albert in late September 1914, as October began German and French forces clashed again at the Battle of Arras, leading to yet another bloody stalemate in the “Race to the Sea.”

With the fighting around Albert grinding to a halt, German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn rushed reinforcements to the Sixth Army under Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht at the far right end of the German line, in hopes of outflanking the French Second Army under General Édouard de Castelnau from the north. Meanwhile, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre formed a new army subdivision with recently arrived troops (soon to be the new Tenth Army) under General Louis Maud’huy, standing in the way of the German Sixth Army at Arras. 

On October 1, Rupprecht, unaware of the extent of French reinforcements, ordered Sixth Army to advance west from near Douai, while Maud’huy, believing he faced no more than a thin screening force of German cavalry, ordered an attack in the opposite direction. The result of these simultaneous moves was another head-on collision. 

Over the next two days the German Sixth Army slowly pushed the French back towards Arras with assistance from the German First, Second, and Seventh Armies, but the Germans paid a heavy price for modest gains; on the afternoon of October 3, they gave up the direct assault on Arras and mounted a new attack from the north, without much more success. At the same time, the French attempted a flank attack from the north that also failed, while a German push for Vimy, north of Arras, made slow progress in the face of stiff opposition. Caught in the middle of all this, the town of Arras itself was soon battered into oblivion, with the loss of a number of historic medieval buildings.

 

On October 4, Joffre put the aggressive General Ferdinand Foch in command of a new northern army group including both Castelnau’s Second Army and Maud’huy’s Tenth Army, with instructions to hold off the Germans as new French reinforcements arrived to the north—repeating the now-familiar pattern of the Race to the Sea, which the French General Gallieni summed up with his judgment that “the Allies were always 24 hours and an Army Corps behind the Germans.” 

The Germans managed to make some further gains on October 4, finally occupying Vimy and taking control of part of a ridge offering good defensive positions to the south and west of the village—but once again they suffered heavy casualties for small advances. In the days to come Foch ordered the Tenth Army to counterattack but the French push soon ran out of steam in the face of German defenses. Both sides were digging in around Arras (top, German trenches) and the focal point was shifting north once again.

British Move to Flanders

As the Race to the Sea approached the Belgian border, Joffre and Foch sought additional reinforcements to hold the lengthening front and hopefully turn the German flank. With fewer French troops available for redeployment from the south, they turned to the British Expeditionary Force, still dug in along the Aisne but now freed up by the French Sixth Army, which took over the British trenches.

Beginning October 2 the BEF began boarding trains, trucks and buses to redeploy to the far left end of the Allied line, north of the new French Tenth Army—an area just south of the Belgian border near the villages of St. Omer and Hazebrouck. The British infantry started to assemble west of Lille on October 10, screened by two British cavalry divisions under General Edmund Allenby, and reinforced by fresh troops from England. 

However, at the same time, the German Sixth Army was also moving north towards Belgium, where it would clash with the British at the Battle of Messines beginning October 12. And unbeknownst to the Allies Falkenhayn was ordering the creation of a new German Fourth Army in western Belgium, setting the stage for one of the bloodiest battles in history—the inferno of Ypres. 

Belgian Government Flees Antwerp

To the north the noose was tightening around Antwerp, where German siege guns were obliterating outdated fortresses and shattering any hopes the Belgians had of withstanding a long siege. As Belgian resolve began to waver, the British rushed to shore up Antwerp’s defenses and implored King Albert to hang on as long as possible. But the British plan was a textbook example of “too little, too late.” 

In one of the stranger episodes of the war, on October 2 Foreign Secretary Grey and Secretary of State for War Kitchener agreed that First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill should visit Antwerp in person to convince King Albert to hold with promises of British help. Arriving in Antwerp the following day, Churchill managed to persuade the Belgian sovereign to stick it out for another week if possible, promising assistance from the British Royal Naval Division, an amphibious force composed of sailors and marines under the control of the Royal Navy.

As it turned out the Royal Naval Division wasn’t quite ready for service overseas: many of the troops were reservists and volunteers equipped with obsolete rifles, and the brigades lacked artillery or field ambulances. Nonetheless the first British units arrived in Antwerp on October 5, followed by a larger force of 22,000 British troops who arrived at Ostend on October 6—just as the Germans penetrated the first line of forts guarding Antwerp. That same day the Belgian government departed for Ostend, and King Albert prepared to order the Belgian Army to evacuate the city and retreat to safety while it still could. The final German assault was about to begin.

Turks Prepare to Join War 

In the years leading up the Great War, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire desperately sought a European ally to protect their troubled realm against the other Great Powers while they implemented badly needed reforms. However the Europeans hesitated to enter into a formal defensive pact that would oblige them to fight for the decaying medieval empire; most were more interested in picking up some new territories when it finally fell apart. 

All that changed with the outbreak of war, as both sides suddenly found new reasons to befriend the Turks. The French, British, and Russians hoped to at least keep the Ottoman Empire neutral in order to keep the strategic straits at Constantinople open, allowing the Western Allies to send critical supplies to Russia via the Black Sea.

Meanwhile the Germans hoped to recruit the Turks into active participation in the war; while Berlin had no great expectations for Turkish performance on the battlefield, the addition of the empire to the Central Powers would allow them to cut off Russia, threaten Britain’s Middle Eastern possessions including Egypt and the Suez Canal, and generally distract the Allies from the decisive theatre on the Western Front. 

In the end the Germans won Turkish favor with a promise to guarantee the Ottoman Empire’s borders with a long-term defensive alliance, along with financial assistance to the tune of five million Turkish gold pounds, and the alliance was secretly signed on August 2, 1914. The Germans further cemented the deal by giving the Turks two powerful warships, the Goeben and Breslau, which replaced two Turkish dreadnoughts confiscated by the British admiralty at the beginning of the war. However to the Germans’ chagrin Constantinople didn’t declare war immediately; instead the Turks pleaded for time, pointing out how long it took to mobilize their forces over the empire’s vast distances and backwards infrastructure. 

After two months the Turks were finally (almost) ready to join the Central Powers. On October 1, 1914, they revealed their intentions by announcing that they were abrogating the “capitulations”—the humiliating concessions that gave Europeans extraterritorial rights in Constantinople and the Turkish straits, impinging on Ottoman sovereignty. Their first act was to close the straits to international shipping, severing Russia’s supply line from the Western Allies.

This wasn’t the only place the Turks intended to roll back Western influence with German support. One of their main goals was to cancel the Yeniköy Agreement of February 8, 1914, which they correctly perceived as the first step in a Russian plan to undermine Turkish control of the Armenian provinces in eastern Anatolia. Fighting for the very existence of the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turk triumvirate of Enver Pasha, Djemal Pasha and Talaat Pasha believed that any measures were justified to settle the “Armenian question.” A horrific tragedy was about to unfold. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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A New Documentary Investigates West Virginia’s Infamous Mothman

The Mothman statue in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
The Mothman statue in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
Jimmy Emerson DVM, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The continuing impact of the Mothman on Point Pleasant, West Virginia, is hard to overlook. The town plays host to a statue, a museum, and an annual festival that all celebrate the red-eyed flying beast who first showed up on the scene in 1966.

In November of that year, two couples spotted a winged, vaguely man-shaped monster near the so-called “TNT area,” a collection of abandoned bunkers where explosives were stored during World War II. After the Point Pleasant Register reported on their harrowing ordeal, other sightings started rolling in. When nearly four dozen people were killed in a bridge collapse on December 15, 1967, many believed the Mothman was somehow involved.

The infamous cryptid’s popularity endured over the ensuing decades with the help of John Keel’s 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies and the 2002 movie adaptation starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney. While glimpses of the Mothman himself definitely peaked during the ’60s, close encounters with a strange creature in West Virginia still surface to this day.

In his new documentary The Mothman Legacy, director Seth Breedlove delves into the history of the Mothman, investigating its long legacy in Pleasant Point and interviewing more recent eyewitnesses. It’s not Breedlove’s first film on the matter; he also directed 2017’s The Mothman of Point Pleasant, which focuses on the Mothman’s heyday from November 1966 to the bridge catastrophe a year later.

His latest project features Jeff Wamsley, who has written two books on the subject and also founded the town’s Mothman Museum. As The Daily Beast reports, The Mothman Legacy doesn’t exactly try to solve the mystery of the Mothman or debunk all the theories about it. Instead, it’s more of a celebration of the urban legend, complete with spooky CGI reenactments and plenty of eerie accounts of alleged run-ins with the monster. In short, it’s ideal fodder for your Halloween movie marathon—and as narrator Lyle Blackburn points out in the film, “an absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily indicate an evidence of absence.”

The documentary is now available to buy on VOD through Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other streaming platforms.

[h/t The Daily Beast]