Turning Point at Ypres, Turks Join Central Powers

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 151st installment in the series. 

October 29-31, 1914: Turning Point at Ypres, Turks Join Central Powers

After the “Race to the Sea” ended in stalemate between German and Allied armies, in October 1914 German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn threw all the German Army’s remaining reserves against the British, French, and Belgian forces in Flanders, staking everything on a final effort by the German Fourth and Sixth Armies to break through the Allied lines around Ypres. If victorious, they would split the Allies, outflank the French armies from the north, and capture the French ports on the English Channel, threatening Britain with invasion.

But Falkenhayn’s hopes of delivering a swift coup de grâce foundered in the face of fierce Allied resistance. In the first phase of the battle, fresh German reserve divisions battered the outnumbered British around the village of Langemarck, northeast of Ypres, but couldn’t overcome the basic defensive advantage conferred by modern weaponry: British machine guns and massed rifle fire simply mowed down the advancing Germans, in a horrific slaughter remembered in Germany as “The Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres.”

The British also suffered very heavy casualties, but were reinforced by French divisions rushed to Ypres by chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre; in fact on October 28-29 the French 17th Division and the British 2nd Division managed to advance and recapture the village of Zonnebeke. Further south the Indian Lahore and Meerut Divisions arrived to take over trenches from exhausted French cavalry and the BEF’s equally exhausted 6th Division west of Lille. 

Meanwhile to the north depleted Belgian divisions held off repeated German assaults along the River Yser, aided by shallow-bottomed British monitors bombarding German units from the North Sea, while a scrappy brigade of French marines defended the key canal town of Dixmude against German forces six times as large. When the Germans finally threatened to break through the Belgian lines, on October 25 Belgium’s King Albert decided to play his trump card: they would open the dikes holding back the North Sea and flood the plains around the Yser.

Gheluvelt 

As the floodwaters slowly began to rise, the German generals were absorbed in planning another attempt to break through the British lines with two thrusts – one towards Messines, south of Ypres, and another towards the village of Gheluvelt, to the city’s east. To carry out the assault Falkenhayn formed a new formation, Army Group Fabeck, named for commander Max von Fabeck, with troops from the Fourth and Sixth Armies plus new divisions drawn from elsewhere on the Western Front.

Chastened by the appalling casualties at Langemarck, this time the Germans decided to clear the way with one of the largest artillery bombardments in history. At 5:30 a.m. on October 29, about an hour and a half before sunrise, the German guns opened up with a deafening roar that shook the earth and lit up the foggy pre-dawn sky along a five-mile front east of Ypres. These included huge 42-centimeter siege guns brought up from Antwerp, nicknamed “Big Berthas.” John Lucy, a corporal in the British Army, described the experience of coming under fire by one of these guns:

It was the loudest shell we had heard in transit to date… Would it never come down? It took an unbelievably long time. Then every man in the front line ducked as the thing shrieked raspingly louder and louder down on us. There was a terrific thump which shook the ground, and quite a pause, then a rending crash so shatteringly loud each of us believed it to be in his own section of trench. A perceptible wall of air set up by a giant explosion struck our faces. 

The infantry attack of the German 54th Reserve Division and 6th Bavarian Reserve Division came like a tidal wave along Menin Road, connecting Ypres to the village of Menin  (one of the great battlegrounds of the war on the Western Front, the road and surrounding landscape were soon turned into a burnt-over wasteland; above, “Hellfire Corner” on the road in 1917). The first German assault hit the junction between the British 1st and 7th Divisions, still occupying hastily dug trenches with few if any defensive improvements. Sergeant John Bell recalled a darkly humorous exchange with another soldier: 

All the guns in Flanders seemed to have suddenly concentrated on our particular sector of the British front. When the artillery fire subsided, the Germans sprang from everywhere and attacked us… I told the men to keep under cover and detailed one man, Ginger Bain, as “look out”. After what seemed ages Ginger excitedly asked, “How strong is the German army?” I replied, “Seven million.” “Well,” said Ginger, “here is the whole bloody lot of them making for us.”

By 6:30 a.m. the Germans had broken through the first line of British troops, aided by the fact that several of the already scarce British machine guns had jammed and British rifles seemed to be malfunctioning, perhaps because the cartridges were too big. Another German attack south of the Menin Road pushed the British troops there back by 7:30 a.m. amid fierce hand-to-hand combat, with two-thirds of the British defenders killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. One British soldier recalled: “Some was strangling the Boche [Germans], some was stabbing them as they come at us, we just did what we could.” However the British 7th Division brought up reserve troops and eventually held the German attack.

As British troops were falling back before the German onslaught that morning, the town of Ypres itself came under sustained bombardment for the first time, sowing terror and chaos among the remaining inhabitants. William Robinson, an American volunteering with the British Expeditionary Force, was present when the bombardment began:

I was in town when the first shells landed, and the panic they created was something terrible to witness. Men, women, and children seemed to have but one idea, and that was to get out as quickly as possible… The roads were littered with dead and dying, wounded horses screaming their horrible scream kicking. The din was terrible. Shells would burst in the roads choked with people, but the momentary gap would immediately fill and the panic-stricken people would sweep over their own dead. 

Back at the front the British were still falling back in confusion north of the Menin Road, having lost hundreds of troops killed and taken prisoner, when around 4 p.m. the officers of the 1st Division ordered their troops to dig in around Gheluvelt, a small village on the Menin Road centered on an aristocratic chateau (pictured below). As the Germans tried to advance across open fields towards the village, the British machine guns cut them down mercilessly. One soldier in the Bavarian List Regiment, Adolf Hitler, wrote to a friend not long afterwards: “Because we had no cover, we simply had to press on. Our captain was in the lead now. Then men started to fall all around me. The English had turned their machine guns on us. We flung ourselves down and crawled through a gully.” 

As night fell the British were stretched dangerously thin in the face of superior enemy numbers, but Sir John French, overall commander of the British Expeditionary Force, somehow still believed they might be able to take the offensive the next day. He was soon disabused of this hope.  On October 30 the German assault would resume, following Fabeck’s order to his troops:

The breakthrough will be of decisive importance. We must and will conquer; settle forever the centuries-long struggle, end the war, and strike the decisive blow against our most-detested enemy. We will finish with the British, Indians, Canadians, Moroccans and other trash, feeble adversaries, who surrender in great numbers if they are attacked with vigor. 

This time Fourth and Sixth Armies would pin down the Allies with attacks all along the line, while Army Group Fabeck delivered the main against the British 7th Division and three cavalry divisions under Edmund Allenby to the south around Messines (the British 3rd Division was temporarily fighting with the cavalry too). 

As dawn was breaking on October 30, an even bigger artillery bombardment hit the poorly hidden trenches of the British 7th Division, which were quickly pulverized, sending the defenders fleeing backwards. The German 39th Division now captured the village of Zandvoorde, which gave them a good vantage point on British positions to the north, enabling them to wipe out whole British units with deadly accurate artillery fire.

But the diversionary attacks failed utterly and British troops tenaciously defended the eastern approaches to Ypres, falling back slowly while inflicting very heavy casualties on the advancing Germans with rifle and machine gun fire. By the early afternoon the Germans were shifting their main effort south towards the British cavalry near Messines, but achieved only modest success. At the end of the day the British had fallen back about two miles but still held the Messines Ridge, a key defensive position. 

The British had held off another all-out enemy assault, but Fabeck was determined to make one last push the following day – October 31, the critical day for the entire Battle of Ypres, when the Germans came closest to a major breakthrough. As before the main objective was the village of Gheluvelt.

At 6:45 a.m. the German attack began with yet another rolling bombardment followed immediately by the advance of the 54th Reserve Division, 30th Division, and 6th Bavarian Reserve Division against the British 1st Division. The Germans soon punched a hole in the center of the British line, where just 1,000 British troops, stretched to their breaking point and cut off from headquarters to the rear, staged a desperate defense against tens of thousands of German attackers; British rifle fire was so intense the Germans assumed, incorrectly, that they were facing machine guns. Unsurprisingly the massively outnumbered defenders were forced back, and around 10 am the Germans captured Gheluvelt, the last Allied defensive position on the way to Ypres and the English Channel beyond. 

Defeat was looming when a British officer, Brigadier General Charles FitzClarence, scraped together troops from the British 2nd Division to the north – the 2nd Battalion Worcesters, totaling just 364 officers and men, under Major Edward Hankey – and sent them to attack the Germans in Gheluvelt on their right flank. Over a quarter were wiped out in the first minutes of the advance across open fields, but the remaining attackers pounced on around 1,200 unsuspecting Germans (many drunk and looting the Gheluvelt chateau) who beat a panicked retreat from Gheluvelt, despite outnumbering the British by around six to one (top, British soldiers escort a German prisoner captured at Gheluvelt). The Worcesters made contact with the handful of beleaguered British troops holding out near the chateau and soon reestablished their defensive line. 

To the south fierce fighting was still going on, and attacks would continue along the entire front into November, leading up to one final German assault at Nonneboschen (the Nuns’ Woods) on November 11. But their hard-fought victory at Gheluvelt meant the British troops would enjoy the enormous advantage of defenders from now on, with predictably bloody consequences for the Germans. Private Edward Roe described one German attack on November 2: 

The Maxim on our right and the one on our left get going; they bring converging fire to bear on the advancing German lines. The lines wither and melt under the storm of well-directed fire It was too much for the Germans; they break and fall back in irregular lines and groups on their own trenches, leaving the… field strewn with dead, wounded, and dying in bear skin packs.

Meanwhile the psychological impact of unending combat, including the terror of infantry charges and the mind-numbing effects of relentless artillery fire, were becoming pronounced on both sides. Frederic Coleman, an American volunteering as a driver in the BEF, recalled: “The sensation was indescribable. A tearing at my nerve-centres seemed like to wrench apart some imaginary fabric of feeling and sensibility. It grew unbearable, but generally subsided with a lull in the shelling, leaving me tired, as if having suffered physical pain.” British war correspondent Philip Gibbs also noted the impact of shelling on ordinary soldiers:

… this shell-fire is not an ordinary test of courage. Courage is annihilated in the face of it. Something else takes its place – a philosophy of fatalism, sometimes an utter boredom with the way in which death plays the fool with men, threatening but failing to kill; in most cases a strange extinction of all emotions and sensations, so that men who have been long under shell-fire have a peculiar rigidity of the nervous system, as if something has been killed inside them, though outwardly they are still alive and untouched.

Ottoman Empire Joins the Central Powers 

As the fighting raged in Flanders, two thousand miles to the east the Allies suffered a giant setback with the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, adding a whole new theater of war in the Middle East, where the Turks could threaten the Suez Canal, the lifeline of the British Empire, as well as Britain’s main source oil in Persia. Perhaps most importantly the Ottoman Empire’s closing of the Turkish straits meant the Western Allies could no longer deliver supplies, including much-needed ammunition, to Russia via the Black Sea. 

Led by War Minister Enver Pasha, the Young Turk triumvirate which effectively ruled the Ottoman Empire had signed a secret treaty of alliance with Germany back in August, just as the war was beginning – but then dragged their feet when it came to actually joining hostilities, partly because it took so long for the empire’s military to mobilize for action, and partly because they demanded five million Turkish gold pounds from the Germans as their price for entering the war. 

By late October the money had arrived and Enver Pasha believed the empire was ready, or at least as ready as it would ever be, but he still faced doubts from figurehead Grand Vizier Said Halim, not to mention his fellow triumvirs Djemal Pasha and Talaat Pasha, who wanted to ask the Germans for even more time to prepare (the other members of the Turkish cabinet opposed the decision to enter the war outright, but were sidelined by the triumvirs). 

Fearing that the Germans might decide to abandon their alliance, Enver decided to give his colleagues a fait accompli: on October 24 he authorized Admiral Souchon, the German commander of the Goeben and Breslau (sold to Turkey by Germany to complete the alliance, but still manned by German crews) to steam into the Black Sea and conduct a surprise attack on Russian naval facilities.

On October 27, 1914, the Goeben and Breslau sailed from Constantinople, supposedly on a training exercise, and on October 29 Souchon reported the ships had been attacked by Russian vessels without provocation – a total fabrication. This gave him the excuse he needed to bombard the Russian ports of Odessa, Sevastopol, and Novorossiysk (above, oil tanks burning at Novorossisysk). As expected, most of the Turkish cabinet resigned in protest, but were powerless to stop the Young Turk triumvirate, which already wielded dictatorial powers, from plunging the Ottoman Empire into the greatest conflagration the world had ever known. 

(Click to enlarge)

While the war would spell the empire’s doom in the long run, in the short term it presented an alarming escalation for the already-overtaxed Allies. Almost immediately the Turkish Fourth Army, based in Damascus, began moving south in preparation for an attack on the Suez Canal. Meanwhile the Russians mobilized their Caucasus Army to attack the Turks in eastern Anatolia. Unsurprisingly the Russians counted on the Christian Armenians who lived there as allies against their hated Turkish overlords – fueling Turkish suspicions of Armenian disloyalty. Before long the Young Turks began plotting a campaign of genocide to settle the “Armenian question” once and for all.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Welcome to the Party, Pal: A Die Hard Board Game Exists

USAOPOLY/Amazon
USAOPOLY/Amazon

On the heels of the 30th anniversary of the classic Bruce Willis action film Die Hard last year, tabletop board game company The OP has created a game that will see John McClane once again battle his way through Nakatomi Plaza. Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist is a board game officially licensed by Fox Consumer Products that drops players into a setting familiar to anyone who has seen the film: As New York cop McClane tries to reconcile with his estranged wife, he must navigate a team of cutthroat thieves set on overtaking a Los Angeles high-rise.

The game has a one-against-many format, with one player assuming the role of McClane and the other players conspiring as the thieves to eliminate him from the Plaza.

The OP, also known as USAOpoly, has previously created games based on Avengers: Infinity War and the Harry Potter franchise. Die Hard has spawned four sequels, the most recent being 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard. Willis will likely return as McClane for a sixth installment that will alternate between the present day and his rookie years in the NYPD. That film has no release date set.

The board game is available for purchase on Amazon now for $40.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

12 Good Ol' Facts About The Dukes of Hazzard

Getty Images
Getty Images

When The Dukes of Hazzard premiered on January 26, 1979, it was intended to be a temporary patch in CBS’s primetime schedule until The Incredible Hulk returned. Only nine episodes were ordered, and few executives at the network had any expectation that the series—about two amiable brothers at odds with the corrupt law enforcement of Hazzard County—would become both a ratings powerhouse and a merchandising bonanza. Check out some of these lesser-known facts about the Duke boys, their extended family, and the gravity-defying General Lee.

1. CBS's chairman hated The Dukes of Hazzard.

CBS chairman William Paley never quite bought into the idea of spinning his opinion to match the company line. Having built CBS from a radio station to one of the “Big Three” television networks, he had harvested talent as diverse as Norman Lear and Lucille Ball, a marked contrast to the Southern-fried humor of The Dukes of Hazzard. In his 80s when it became a top 10 series and seeing no reason to censor himself, Paley repeatedly and publicly described the show as “lousy.”

2. The Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee got 35,000 fan letters a month.


Getty Images

While John Schneider and Tom Wopat were the ostensible stars of the show, both the actors and the show's producers quickly found out that the main attraction was the 1969 Dodge Charger—dubbed the General Lee—that trafficked brothers Bo and Luke Duke from one caper to another. Of the 60,000 letters the series was receiving every month in 1981, 35,000 wanted more information on or pictures of the car.

3. Dennis Quaid wanted to be The Dukes of Hazzard's Luke Duke—on one condition.

When the show began casting in 1978, producers threw out a wide net searching for the leads. Dennis Quaid was among those interested in the role of Luke Duke—which eventually went to Wopat—but he had a condition: he would only agree to the show if his then-wife, P.J. Soles, was cast at the Dukes’ cousin, Daisy. Soles wasn’t a proper fit for the supporting part, which put Quaid off; Catherine Bach was eventually cast as Daisy.

4. John Schneider pretended to be a redneck for his Dukes of Hazzard audition.

New York native Schneider was only 18 years old when he went in to read for the role of Bo Duke. The problem: producers wanted someone 24 to 30 years old. Schneider lied about his age and passed himself off as a Southern archetype, strutting in wearing a cowboy hat, drinking a beer, and spitting tobacco. He also told them he could do stunt driving. It was a good enough performance to land him the show.

5. The Dukes of Hazzard co-stars John Schneider and Tom Wopat met while taking a poop.

After Schneider was cast, the show needed to locate an actor who could complement Bo. Stage actor Wopat was flown in for a screen test; Schneider happened to be in the bathroom when Wopat walked in after him. The two began talking about music—Schneider had seen a guitar under the stall door—and found they had an easy camaraderie. After flushing, the two did a scene. Wopat was hired immediately.

6. Daisy's Dukes needed a tweak on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Bach’s omnipresent jean shorts were such a hit that any kind of cutoffs quickly became known as “Daisy Dukes,” after her character. But they were so skimpy that the network was concerned censors wouldn’t allow them. A negotiation began, and it was eventually decided that Bach would wear some extremely sheer pantyhose to make sure there were no clothing malfunctions.

7. Nancy Reagan was fan of The Dukes of Hazzard's Daisy.

Shirley Moore, Bach’s former grade school teacher, went on to work in the White House. After Bach sent her a poster, she was surprised to hear back that then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was enamored with it. “I’m the envy of the White House and I’m having your poster framed,” Moore wrote in a letter. “Mrs. Reagan saw the picture and fell in love with it.” Bach sent more posters, which presumably became part of the decor during the Reagan administration.

8. The Dukes of Hazzard's stars had some very bizarre contract demands.

Wopat and Schneider famously walked off the series in 1982 after demanding a cut of the show’s massive merchandising revenue—which was, by one estimate, more than $190 million in 1981 alone. They were replaced with Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer, “cousins” of the Duke boys, who were reviled by fans for being scabs. The two leads eventually came back, but it wasn’t the only time Warner Bros. had to deal with irate actors. James Best, who portrayed crooked sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, refused to film five episodes because he had no private dressing room in which to change his clothes; the production just hosed him down when he got dirty. Ben Jones, who played “Cooter” the mechanic, briefly left because he wanted his character to sport a beard and producers preferred he be clean-shaven.

9. A miniature car was used for some stunts in The Dukes of Hazzard.

As established, the General Lee was a primary attraction for viewers of the series. For years, the show wrecked dozens of Chargers by jumping, crashing, and otherwise abusing them, which created some terrific footage. For its seventh and final season in 1985, the show turned to a miniature effects team in an effort to save on production costs: it was cheaper to mangle a Hot Wheels-sized model than the real thing. “It was a source of embarrassment to all of us on the show,” Wopat told E!.

10. The Dukes of Hazzard's famous "hood slide" was an accident.

A staple—and, eventually, cliché—of action films everywhere, the slide over the hood was popularized by Tom Wopat. While it may have been tempting to take credit, Wopat said it was unintentional and that the first time he tried clearing the hood, the car’s antenna wound up injuring him.

11. The Dukes of Hazzard cartoon went international.


YouTube

Warner Bros. capitalized on the show’s phenomenal popularity with an animated series, The Dukes, which was produced by Hanna-Barbera and aired in 1983. Taking advantage of the form, the Duke boys traveled internationally, racing Boss Hogg through Greece or Hong Kong. Perhaps owing to the fact that the live-action series was already considered enough of a cartoon, the animated series only lasted 20 episodes.

12. In 2015, Warner Bros. banned the Confederate flag from The Dukes of Hazzard merchandising.

At the time the series originally aired, little was made of the General Lee sporting a Confederate flag on its hood. In 2015, after then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley spoke out against the depiction of the flag in popular culture, Warner Bros. elected to stop licensing products with the original roof. The company announced that all future Dukes merchandise would drop the design element. Schneider disagreed with the decision, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “Is the flag used as such in other applications? Yes, but certainly not on the Dukes ... Labeling anyone who has the flag a ‘racist’ seems unfair to those who are clearly ‘never meanin’ no harm.'”

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