Germans Repulsed at Givenchy

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 165th installment in the series.

January 25-31, 1915: Germans Repulsed at Givenchy 

By the beginning of 1915, most ordinary soldiers and officers accepted the bloody futility of offensive action, but their commanders remained convinced that a breakthrough was possible, if only they threw enough men and artillery against a weak spot in the opposing line, choosing the right moment to achieve total surprise. Unfortunately for the rank and file, surprise was quickly becoming a rare commodity, thanks to ubiquitous aerial reconnaissance, spies, and deserters.

Many sources claim it was a German deserter who gave away chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn’s plan for an attack by the German Sixth Army against the British First Army near Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée, on the road between La Bassée and Béthune, on January 25, 1915. As the First Battle of Champagne ground on to the east with little result tying down French forces there, Falkenhayn hoped to strike a decisive blow against the British forces straddling the La Bassée canal just south of Givenchy. This threatened the exposed German salient in front of La Bassée. A British push here could disrupt German communications to the south, splitting the German line (as indeed the British had tried to do already). Falkenhayn hoped to eliminate this threat and maybe even open a path to the French ports on the English Channel.

After stumbling into the British trenches in the pre-dawn hours, around 6:30am the deserter warned a British officer that the Germans were about to open a general assault with a huge artillery bombardment accompanied by the explosion of mines—tunnels dug under no-man’s-land all the way to the British lines and packed with explosives (another tactic resurrected from siege warfare). Despite this warning, the wave of artillery shells and exploding mines which hit the British positions at 7:30am was more intense than expected, tearing a gap in the British line which allowed the Germans to advance all the way to the second line of British trenches south of the canal, reaching the center of Givenchy to the north. One British officer, Frederick L. Coxen, described the furious exchange of fire in his diary:

When the bombardment started it was more horrific than any of the other ones I experienced. The sound of artillery fire was continuous, except when they fired their 17 inch guns… The whine of hundreds of shells going through the air, mixed with the explosion of both above and ground level shells, was deafening. All around me great mounds of earth were uplifted by bursting shells. We rapidly replied with gunfire of our own, which added greatly to the unbearable noise. The smoke from gunfire and bursting shells was so heavy, that at times we couldn't see our target… The heavy bombardment forced our infantry to retire. Since our battery position was the foremost battery behind their trenches, I knew if our infantry lost the small ridge in front of us, it would be the finish of us and our guns.

Beginning in the early afternoon, British officers rallied troops from two regiments—the famous Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards, along with reinforcements from the London Scottish regiment, the First Royal Highlanders of the Cameron Highlanders, and the Second King’s Rifle Corps. They finally halted the onrushing Germans with blistering massed rifle and machine gun fire. The British forces then attempted to regain the momentum with a counterattack of their own, but found the tables turned as they ran into a wall of fire from the Germans, now entrenched.

Over the following days the British called up reinforcements and slowly regained some of the lost ground. On the morning of January 29, the Germans unleashed another massive artillery bombardment and sent three battalions forward against the new British lines between the canal to the south and the Béthune-La Bassée road to the north, but this time made little progress against the reinforced defenders. By late January the German assault at Givenchy ended, having inflicted substantial casualties on both sides in return for scant strategic results. It settled, like so many other battles, in stalemate.

Life in the Trenches

While fighting raged around Givenchy, ordinary soldiers and mid-ranking officers saw the pointlessness of attacks on fortified positions and worked out informal ceasefires like the famous Christmas truce, despite the fact that these were strongly disapproved by high-ranking officers on both sides. Once again, British soldiers found some German units, particularly those from Saxony, more willing to “live and let live.” On January 29th Sergeant John Minnery wrote in his diary:

We are lying facing the Saxons, and I think they are about fed-up with this war.  They have behaved as they are since the Xmas truce. They walk about on top of their trench, and we do likewise.  They are only about 200 yards in front of us. They dont snipe us and we dont snipe them, but the Prussians who are on our right, snipe at us pretty constant.

Although these arrangements certainly made life less terrifying (at least temporarily), no one could do anything about the weather, and basic living conditions remained intolerable as freezing rain turned the landscape into a muddy morass and trenches into streams (top, a flooded British trench). In January 1915 Victor Chapman, an American volunteer with the French Foreign Legion, wrote to a friend, “the state of filth I live in is unbelievable… Our heads get crusted with mud,– eyes and hair literally gluey with it.” Meanwhile a British soldier, George Benton Laurie, described digging trenches in waterlogged mud under fire: “The whole thing was most weird, with the rockets flying and bullets going, and working parties shovelling for dear life in the darkness. We all tumbled about into shell-holes or ditches in turn, where the water is very cold. I suppose the utter hopelessness of it all prevents one getting ill.”

The water and mud were more than a nuisance—they could be fatal. One anonymous nurse with the British army recounted a chilling story she heard from some wounded officers:

… they told me a horrible story of two Camerons who got stuck in the mud and sucked down to their shoulders. They took an hour and a half getting one out, and just as they said to the other, “All right, Jock, we'll have you out in a minute,” he threw back his head and laughed, and in doing so got sucked right under, and is there still. They said there was no sort of possibility of getting him out; it was like a quicksand. 

A far more common affliction was “trench foot,” a painful circulatory disease caused by standing in cold water for long periods of time, resulting in blisters, open sores, fungal infections, and eventually gangrene. In late December 1914 William Robinson, an American volunteer dispatch rider in the British Army, noted in his diary:

Most of the Royal Scots are suffering from “trench feet.” Their feet have swollen to such an extent that they have burst their boots and are as big as a man’s head. They are all blue and the blood runs through the pores of the skin, apparently. A lot came in on their hands and knees, and many came dragging themselves on their bellies through the mud. It was terrible.

It’s worth noting that some soldiers probably let their feet deteriorate on purpose, in order to get sent back to “Blighty” (Britain). One British soldier, Edward Roe, described the strategy: “No! He will let them develop. In another three or four days he will report sick. He makes certain that he will get to Blighty. What does the loss of three or four or more toes matter so long as he gets ‘out of it’?”

Soldiers could at least take cold comfort from the knowledge that these awful conditions afflicted both sides equally. Adolf Hitler, now working as a regimental dispatch runner in the Bavarian Army on the Flanders front south of Ypres, wrote to his old landlord in Munich: “The weather is miserable; and we often spend days on end in knee-deep water and, what is more, under heavy fire.” Like many of his fellow soldiers on both sides of no-man’s-land, Hitler also noted the surreal aspect of the battlefield:

… what is most dreadful is when the guns begin to spit across the whole front at night. In the distance at first, and then closer and closer with rifle fire gradually joining in. Half an hour later it all starts to die down again except for the countless flares in the sky. And further to the west we can see the beams of large searchlights and hear the constant roar of heavy naval guns.

The worst part of the life in the trenches was unquestionably the inescapable presence of death, in the form of tens of thousands of corpses in various stages of decay blanketing no-man’s-land, where they had lain unburied for weeks and months. The smell was omnipresent and overwhelming. The same anonymous nurse talked to another British officer, who’d been in the trenches in Flanders and “said no one could get into Messines, where there is only one house left standing, because of the unburied dead lying about."

Indeed, death permeated the physical environment. Further north, Christian Mallet, a French cavalryman stationed by the River Yser, recorded in his diary entry for January 25, 1915: “We made some tea, but the water came from the Yser, which was carrying down dead bodies, and the tea smelt of death. We could not drink it.”

Unsurprisingly daily contact with death had a profound psychological effect on soldiers, many of whom outwardly adopted a façade of fatalistic indifference, but inwardly were reeling from the traumatic impact of seeing dozens of friends, acquaintances, and family members killed in front of their eyes. However much they tried to suppress it, this trauma inevitably manifested in unexpected places, for example through dreams. In December 1914 a German soldier, Eduard Schmieder, described one such dream in a letter to a friend:

I was lying in an advance-post in a castle. I came into a room and as I entered a beautiful, ravishing woman advanced to meet me. I wanted to kiss her, but as I approached her I found a skull grinning at me. For one moment I was paralyzed with horror, but then I kissed the skull, kissed it so eagerly and violently that a fragment of its under-jaw remained between my lips. At the same moment this figure of death changed to that of my Anna – and then I must have woken up. That is the dream of how I embraced death.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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15 Fascinating Facts About Alfred Hitchcock

Peter Dunne, Express/Getty Images
Peter Dunne, Express/Getty Images

The shower scene in Psycho. The biplane chase in North by Northwest. The gas station attack in The Birds. They’re some of the most memorable and terrifying scenes in cinema history—and they came from the mind of one man: Alfred Hitchcock. The Master of Suspense, who went by the nickname “Hitch,” is also one of the most recognizable Hollywood icons, and his life was as fascinating as his films. Here are 15 things you might not have known about the legendary filmmaker, who was born in London on August 13, 1899.

1. Alfred Hitchcock was afraid of law enforcement ... and breakfast.

Hitchcock’s mastery of thrillers may have earned him the nickname the “Master of Suspense,” but the plucky filmmaker had phobias of his own.

His lifelong fear of police stemmed from an incident in his childhood when his strict father, William, punished him by sending him to the local Leytonstone police station on the outskirts of his family's home in east London. “I was just sent along with a note, I must have been four or five years of age, and the head of the police read it and then put me into the cell and said, ‘That’s what we do to naughty boys,’” Hitchcock later recalled of the experience.

Also, omelettes were decidedly not his favorite breakfast food. "I'm frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me," he once said in an interview. "That white round thing without any holes … Have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I've never tasted it."

2. Alfred Hitchcock began his work in silent films.

Known for the complex title sequences in his own films, Hitchcock began his career in cinema in the early 1920s, designing the art title cards featured in silent films. The gig was at an American company based in London called the Famous Players-Lasky Company (it would later become Paramount Pictures, which produced five Hitchcock-directed films). As Hitchcock later told French filmmaker François Truffaut in their infamous Hitchcock/Truffaut conversations, “It was while I was in this department, you see, that I got acquainted with the writers and was able to study the scripts. And, out of that, I learned the writing of scripts.” The experience also led Hitch to try his hand at actual filmmaking. “If an extra scene was wanted, I used to be sent out to shoot it,” he told Truffaut.

3. Alfred Hitchcock learned from another cinema master.

In 1924, Hitchcock and his wife Alma were sent to Germany by Gainsborough Pictures—the British production company where he was under contract—to work on two Anglo-German films called The Prude’s Fall and The Blackguard. While working in Neubabelsberg, Hitchcock was taken under the wing of expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau, who created the chilling Dracula adaptation Nosferatu, and was shooting a silent film called The Last Laugh. “From Murnau,” Hitchcock later said, “I learned how to tell a story without words.”

4. Most of Alfred Hitchcock's early films are lost, but a 1923 silent melodrama was discovered in New Zealand.

Only nine of Hitchcock’s earliest silent films still exist. The earliest surviving film he worked on, a 1923 melodrama titled The White Shadow—about twin sisters, one good, one evil—was thought lost until three of the film’s six reels were found sitting unmarked in the New Zealand Film Archive in 2011. The film reels were originally donated to the Archive in 1989 by the grandson of a Kiwi projectionist and collector.

While the film was technically directed by leading 1920s filmmaker Graham Cutts, the 24-year-old Hitchcock served as the film’s screenwriter, assistant director, and art director.

5. Alfred Hitchcock brought sound to British movies.

The 1929 movie Blackmail, about a murder investigation headed up by the murderer’s fiance, was Hitchcock’s first hit film, and also the first “talkie” film released in Britain. (The first full-length talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released in the U.S. in 1927.)

While Blackmail was originally conceived and created as a silent film, the final cut was dubbed with synchronized sound added in post-production using then-state of the art audio equipment imported from the U.S.

6. Alfred Hitchcock popped up on screen all the time.

The most constant image in Hitchcock’s films seem to be Hitchcock himself. The filmmaker perfected the art of the cameo, making blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances in 39 of his own films.

His trickier appearances include the single-location film Lifeboat, where he appears in a weight-loss advertisement in a newspaper read by one of the film’s characters. The only film he actually speaks in is 1956’s The Wrong Man; his traditional cameo is replaced by a silhouetted narration in the introduction. That replaced a scrapped cameo of the director exiting a cab in the opening of the film.

7. Alfred Hitchcock was as successful in front of the camera on the small screen as he was behind the camera on the big screen.

By 1965, Hitchcock was a household name. That was the same year his long-running anthology TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents—which began in 1955 and was later renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour after episode lengths were stretched from 25- to 50-minute runtimes—came to an end.

The series was known for its title sequence featuring a caricature of Hitchcock's distinctive profile, which was replaced by Hitchcock himself in silhouette. But Hitchcock also appeared after the title sequence to introduce each new story. At least two versions of the opening were shot for every episode: An American opening specifically poked fun at the show’s network advertisers, while Hitchcock usually used the European opening to poke fun at American audiences in general.

7. Alfred Hitchcock literally wrote the encyclopedia entry on how to make movies.

The filmmaker would write (at least part of) the book on the medium that made him famous.

Hitchcock personally contributed to writing a portion of the “Motion Pictures, Film Production” entry in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, giving typically cheeky first-hand insight into the fundamentals and technical aspects of filmmaking.

On the practice of moving the camera during a shot, Hitchcock wrote, “it is wrong to suppose, as is all too commonly the case, that the screen of the motion picture lies in the fact that the camera can roam abroad, can go out of the room, for example, to show a taxi arriving. This is not necessarily an advantage and it can so easily be merely dull.”

8. Alfred Hitchcock popularized the MacGuffin.

Even if you don’t know it by name, you know what it is. The MacGuffin is the so-called motivating element that drives a movie’s plot forward. Think: the eponymous statue in The Maltese Falcon, or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or the airplane engine plans in Hitch’s own The 39 Steps.

The term was coined by Angus MacPhail (note the prefix in his surname), Hitchcock’s screenwriting collaborator on films like Spellbound and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Even though such plot details were supposed to be important, Hitchcock didn’t seem to think they truly mattered. “The main thing I've learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I'm convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others,” Hitchcock told Truffaut in 1962, highlighting how the audience never finds out why the government secrets (a.k.a. the MacGuffin) in North by Northwest truly matter. “Here, you see,” Hitchcock said, “the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!”

9. Alfred Hitchcock scrapped his own documentary about the Holocaust.

Hitch’s films flirted with mentioning the escalating tensions in Europe that would spark World War II, like in the shocking plane crash climax of 1940’s Foreign Correspondent. But the film Hitchcock collaborated on about the explicit horrors of the war would go unseen for decades.

Memory of the Camps, a 1945 documentary filmed by crews who accompanied the Allied armies that liberated those in the Nazi death camps at the end of the war, was stored in a vault in the Imperial War Museum in London until 1985. Originally commissioned by the British Ministry of Information and the American Office of War Information, Hitchcock served as a “treatment advisor” at the behest of his friend Sidney Bernstein, who is the credited director of the film. But the final film was scrapped because it was deemed counterproductive to German postwar reconstruction.

The film was put eventually together as an episode of PBS’s FRONTLINE, and aired on May 7, 1985 to mark the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the camps.

10. Alfred Hitchcock didn't want you to see five of his famous films for decades.

Vertigo may have topped many best-of movie polls, but for over 20 years, between 1961 and 1983, it and four other Hitchcock classics were almost virtually impossible to see. It turns out it was Hitchcock’s fault that Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much were purposefully unavailable to the general public.

The filmmaker personally secured full ownership to the rights of the five films per a contingency clause in the multi-film deal he made with Paramount Pictures in 1953. Eight years after the release of each film, the rights reverted back to Hitchcock, which, in the years before Blu-ray and DVD, seemed like a financially savvy move on Paramount’s part. Three years after Hitch’s death in 1980, Universal Pictures acquired the film rights to all five classics, making them available once again.

11. Alfred Hitchcock didn't want to work with Jimmy Stewart after Vertigo.

Everyman actor Jimmy Stewart worked with Hitchcock a number of times, including as the nosy, wheelchair-bound photographer in Rear Window, and as the dastardly murderer in the “one-take” film Rope. After Stewart appeared in Vertigo in 1958, the actor prepared to appear in Hitchcock’s follow-up a year later, North by Northwest. But Hitch had other plans.

The director felt that one of the main reasons Vertigo wasn’t more of a smash hit was because of its aging star, and vowed to never use Stewart in any film ever again. Hitch wanted actor Cary Grant instead, and, according to author Marc Eliot’s book, Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, “Hitchcock, as was his nature, did not tell Jimmy there was no way he was going to get North by Northwest.” But when Stewart grew tired of waiting, and took a part in the movie Bell Book and Candle instead, “Hitchcock used that as his excuse, allowing him to diplomatically avoid confronting Jimmy and maintaining their personal friendship, which both valued.”

12. Alfred Hitchcock personally funded Pyscho.

When Hitchcock approached Paramount Pictures—where he was under contract—to put up the money to make Psycho, the studio balked at the salacious story. So Hitchcock financed the movie himself, foregoing his normal salary in exchange for 60 percent ownership of the rights to the film; Paramount agreed to distribute the film. To cut costs even more, the filmmaker enlisted his relatively cheaper Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew and shot the film on less pricey black and white film. Hitch’s gamble worked: He reportedly personally earned $6 million from Psycho—about $50 million in today's dollars.

13. Alfred Hitchcock wouldn't allow theaters to let anyone—not even the Queen of England—in to see Psycho once it had started.

Psycho (1960) has one of the best twists in movie history—and Hitchcock went to great lengths to not only make sure audiences didn’t spoil that twist, but to make sure they enjoyed the entire movie before the twist.

Hitchcock attempted to buy all copies of author Robert Bloch’s source novel to keep the twist under wraps in cities where the movie opened. The promotional rollout of the film was controlled by Hitchcock himself, and he barred stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins from doing interviews about the movie. He also demanded that theaters in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia adhere to strict theatrical showtimes and not allow admittance after the movie had started.

Marketing materials for Psycho included lobby cards meant to be prominently displayed with the message, “We won't allow you to cheat yourself. You must see PSYCHO from the very beginning. Therefore, do not expect to be admitted into the theatre after the start of each performance of the picture. We say no one—and we mean no one—not even the manager's brother, the President of the United States, or the Queen of England (God bless her)!”

14. Alfred Hitchcock loved movies that were not "Hitchcockian."

The filmmaker had a habit of screening films in his studio lot office every Wednesday, and his daughter Patricia revealed that one of his favorite films—and, in fact, the last movie he personally screened before his death—was the 1977 Burt Reynolds movie Smokey and the Bandit.

15. Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar.

Hitchcock is in the bittersweet class of venerable filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, and more who never received their industry’s highest honor as Best Director. Hitchcock did get Oscar nominations for directing Rebecca (which took home Best Picture), Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho. But he personally went home empty-handed every time.

When the Academy finally honored him with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1967, his long-time-coming speech was only five words long: “Thank you, very much indeed.”

This story has been updated for 2020.