Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes

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 167th installment in the series. 

February 7, 1915: Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes 

Following Russia’s disastrous defeat at Tannenberg, the Eastern Front began to look like a seesaw, or occasionally a revolving door, as both sides took turns attacking, shifting their forces and looking for weak spots in the enemy line, only to see their offensives run out of steam before reaching their objectives (Warsaw and Lemberg for the Germans, Krakow and Silesia for the Russians). During this period there were limited gains, as the Russians managed to conquer and hold the northeastern Austrian province of Galicia, laying siege to the strategic fortress town of Przemyśl, while the Germans established a defensive perimeter by occupying a strip of territory inside Russian Poland. But neither side was able to parlay these advances into a decisive breakthrough. 

This dynamic continued through the winter of 1914-1915, as the Russians called up millions of new troops and created three new armies—the Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth—with the intention of resuming the offensive against East Prussia. For their part the Germans, having decided on the New Year to shift their focus to the Eastern Front, transferred troops from the Western Front to create the new South Army (Südarmee), bolstering the forces of their hapless ally Austria-Hungary, while to the north they also created a new Tenth Army in East Prussia and a new army group under General Max von Gallwitz (from August 1915 the Twelfth Army). 


Click to enlarge 

On February 7, 1915, the German commander-in-chief on the Eastern Front, Paul von Hindenburg—assisted, as always, by his brilliant chief of staff Erich Ludendorff—preempted the planned Russian invasion of East Prussia with a surprise attack by the Eighth Army under Otto von Below, catching the Russian Tenth Army under Thadeus von Sievers unprepared, while the Russian Twelfth Army was still mobilizing. The Germans hit the Russians in the eastern Masurian Lakes region, the site of a previous victory (the battle is also called the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes).

This daring offensive, launched in the middle of a snowstorm, forced the Russians into a chaotic retreat through frozen swamps and forests filled with snowdrifts. By the end of the first week the Germans had advanced 70 miles, crossing the East Prussian border and threatening a total encirclement; indeed by the end of the second week the Russian 20th Army Corps was cut off in the Augustowo Forest, a dense old-growth forest crisscrossed by small lakes, and forced to surrender. The Germans also took huge numbers of prisoners, while thousands of Russian soldiers were incapacitated by frostbite. 

The rout only came an end on February 21-22, 1915, when the Russian Tenth Army dug in along new defensive positions southeast of the Augustowo Forest, while the Russian Twelfth Army finally rumbled into action, threatening the German Eighth Army’s right flank from the southwest. 

 

Once again the cost of defeat for the Russians was mind-boggling, with the Tenth Army suffering around 200,000 casualties, including killed, wounded, prisoners and missing (above, Russian POWs). An American correspondent, Edward L. Fox, described the aftermath in former Russian trenches captured by the Germans near the Forest of Augustowo: 

Further on in the field… I saw a shapeless heap of men, and then another heap, and another, until I had counted six… I had never seen such men before. They were men postured like jumping jacks only their legs and arms were still. They were men who seemed standing on their heads, their feet over the trench top, turned soles up to the sky. Somehow, they gave you the impression of being all legs and arms,– stiff grotesque legs, stiff grotesque arms. They all seemed lumpy, all but one, and he was standing up… and he was standing because the piled dead braced him so that he could not fall.

By comparison the Germans lost "just" 16,000 men in all categories. And once again Hindenburg and Ludendorff had destroyed a Russian threat against East Prussia – but were unable to turn their victory into a knockout blow, as the Austro-German forces on the southern half of the front remained bogged down in the northern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.

Eastern Abattoir 

Meanwhile smaller engagements continued along the length of the Eastern Front, adding to the toll of dead and wounded. John Morse, an Englishman serving with the Russians in central Poland in February 1915, recalled horrifying scenes in captured German trenches, in a battlefield full of dead bodies stacked on one another: 

They lay thickest in and about the trenches. In the bottom of the advanced trenches there was a foot depth of blood which had drained from the corpses… the men occupying the position were compelled to stand in it half-leg deep for several days until an opportunity came to clean the trenches, when the congealed horror was removed… and buried by the ton in holes dug for the purpose. In one part of the trench I helped remove a heap of sixty-nine corpses, lying eleven deep in the middle… [some] had been smothered under the weight of their dead comrades, or trampled to death. 

And yet amid all the horror there were still moments of humanity between enemy soldiers, as individuals. J.M. Beaufort, an American observer with the German army, described the following vignette after the Winter Battle of Masurian Lakes:

One cold and grey morning, while driving through the extensive forests of Augustowo, we came across a scene that would have touched a heart of stone. A giant Russian was sitting cross-legged in oriental fashion in the snow. On his lap lay pillowed the head of a German private, whose stark body, long since cold and dead, was covered with the Russian’s overcoat. An empty flask lay beside them in the snow. The Russian’s left sleeve was soaked with blood, and, on investigation, we found that his elbow was completely smashed. And the man’s sole comment was: “Nitchewo.” [“It is nothing.”]

See the previous installment or all entries.

Get Into the Halloween Spirit With Harry Potter and Star Wars Costumes and Accessories From Hot Topic

Hot Topic
Hot Topic

Halloween is fast approaching, and that means it's time to start picking up those decorations, planning your costume, and settling down for a few monster movie marathons. Hot Topic is already way ahead of you, with a selection of costumes and accessories based on fan-favorite movies and TV shows like Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Stranger Things, and Hocus Pocus. We've picked out some of our favorites for you to check out below.

Harry Potter

1. Beauxbatons Hat and Cape Uniform; $60

Hot Topic

If Fleur Delacour is your favorite character from the Triwizard Tournament, then this look is for you. Beauxbatons baby blue hat and cape can now be yours to prance around in and pretend you're from the magical French academy for young witches.

Buy it: Beauxbatons Hat, Beauxbatons Cape

2. Hogwarts Zip-Up Hoodie Cloak; $55

Hot Topic

One of the most iconic parts of the Hogwarts uniform is the cloak. The sweeping black robes looked so official and mystical in the movies that it almost seems wrong not to wear one if you want to be a Hogwarts student for Halloween. These hoodie cloaks are available in all four house colors.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. Hogwarts Cardigan Sweater; $49

Hot Topic

Much like the cloak, the sweater vests and cardigans the students at Hogwarts got to wear are essential to any costume. You can choose from the four house crests and colors, so you can show your allegiance while also making a fashion statement.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Hogwarts Plaid Skirtall; $45

Hot Topic

Though this isn't a look you'd recognize from the Harry Potter movies, these plaid skirtalls—skirt overalls, basically—feature the crest and colors of whichever house you represent.

Buy it: Hot Topic

Star Wars

1. The Mandalorian Helmet; $17

Hot Topic

With the second season of The Mandalorian coming out right in time for Halloween, going as one of the show's main characters is a no-brainer. And since you probably can't pull off the Baby Yoda look, this simple Mando helmet is your best option.

Buy it: Hot Topic

2. Yoda Pet Costume; $20

Hot Topic

Baby Yoda is easily the cutest thing to emerge from the new Disney+ series, and there's no shortage of merchandise with that little green face plastered across it. From Amazon Echo Dots to slippers to LEGO sets, the little rascal is everywhere. But if you're more a fan of classic Yoda, you can impose your love of the character on your dog with this costume, complete with floppy green ears and tiny Jedi robe.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Force Awakens Rey Costume; $48

Hot Topic

Rey represents a new generation of Star Wars hero, and her costume during her time on Jakku from The Force Awakens is still her most iconic look. It's also a costume that's simple enough to throw on for Halloween and still feel comfortable in.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. R2-D2 with Pumpkin Decoration; $50

Hot Topic

When trick-or-treaters stop to collect candy from your house, greet them with this inflatable R2-D2 decoration that's primed for Halloween. Standing around 3 feet tall, this will show off your love for a galaxy far, far away and your holiday spirit.

Buy it: Hot Topic

The Nightmare Before Christmas

1. Sally Scrunchies Set; $10

Hot Topic

If you're looking to embrace your The Nightmare Before Christmas love in a more subtle way, opt for these Sally-approved scrunchies that embody the colors of the movie without going too far overboard.

Buy it: Hot Topic

2. Jack Skellington Button-Up Shirt; $35

Hot Topic

If Jack Skellington is your ultimate fashion hero, then this button-up pinstriped shirt is the ticket for you. It mimics Jack's look right down to the unique bat-shaped collar.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. Jack and Sally 'Love is Eternal' Eyeshadow Palette; $17

Hot Topic

Makeup inspired by your favorite characters is the key to completing a Halloween look, and this palette will help you make a colorful, smokey eye featuring shades seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas. You can even use these colors long after Halloween is over once you've mastered your favorite style.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Zero Dog Costume; $29

Hot Topic

The real star of The Nightmare Before Christmas has to be the dog, Zero, and now you can drape your own pooch in the ghostly visage for under $30.

Buy it: Hop Topic

Other Categories

- Stranger Things
- Coraline
- Disney
- Haunted Mansion
- Hocus Pocus
- The Craft

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You Betcha: 16 Facts About FX's Fargo

Chris Rock as Loy Cannon in Fargo season 4.
Chris Rock as Loy Cannon in Fargo season 4.
Matthias Clamer/FX © 2020, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

The contrast between the affable citizens of Minnesota and the bloody criminal activities they find themselves drawn into helped make the Coen brothers' Fargo (1996) a critical and commercial success. In 2012, the Oscar-winning filmmakers agreed to let Noah Hawley (Legion) create an expanded-universe TV series for FX. With their help, 2014’s Fargo retained all of the film’s Midwestern charm, with Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo at odds with Martin Freeman’s wife-bludgeoning Lester Nygaard.

The anthology series has been a hit for the network and for Hawley, with three seasons airing through 2017. The fourth season—starring Chris Rock as crime family head Loy Cannon, who rules a new setting for the show (Kansas City in 1950) and trades sons with the Italian mafia to keep the peace between the organizations—premiered on September 27.

In case you're in the mood for reflection, we’ve rounded up some behind-the-scenes facts about television’s most polite crime saga, with plenty of You betchas and Uff das in tow.

Note: Some spoilers ahead.

1. It wasn't the first Fargo television adaptation.

A year after Fargo’s theatrical release, rights holder MGM attempted a small-screen adaptation starring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson, the role originally played by Frances McDormand. The Coens were not involved, which may have doomed the project from the start: it never went to series and sat on the shelf for six years until cable network Trio unearthed the pilot in 2003 as part of their block of unseen-programming specials. Ironically, NBC executive Warren Littlefield passed on this project—which eventually wound up at CBS—fearing it could never live up to the movie: Littlefield wound up becoming an executive producer on the 2014 series.

2. There's a reason the Fargo series didn't use Marge.

One reason Littlefield was more supportive of this spin-off was because creator Noah Hawley had no desire to revisit McDormand’s Marge Gunderson character, the pregnant sheriff of Brainerd, Minnesota. In 2014, Hawley told IndieWire that he opted for an anthology format with a different narrative every season to avoid the show becoming about the “grim” day-to-day adventures of Marge.

3. The Coens didn't have to be involved in Fargo (but they wanted to be.)

Getty Images

Because MGM owns the rights to Fargo, they didn’t necessarily need Joel and Ethan Coen's blessing to move forward. (And apparently didn’t get it for the 1997 attempt.) But when Littlefield presented them with Hawley’s script for the pilot, they decided to become involved. “They just said, ‘We're not big fans of imitation, but we feel like Noah channeled us and we would like to put our names on this,’” Littlefield told HitFix in 2014. “And they didn't have to do that.”

4. The Fargo series is all taken from a (fake) true crime book.

Hawley has been quoted as saying he thinks of the Fargo-verse as being influenced by a big book of Midwestern crime tales, with each season being a different chapter. He cemented that idea in the ninth episode of the second season, opening with a close-up of a book titled The History of True Crime in the Midwest.

5. ... which might explain that UFO.

In season 2, Patrick Wilson’s Lou Solverson character is saved during the “Massacre at Sioux Falls” (originally referenced in the first season) by the appearance of what appeared to be a UFO hovering over a motel parking lot. Even by Fargo’s standards, it was a strange occurrence. According to Hawley, who was pressed for some kind of explanation during a June 2016 book signing, the scene stemmed from the idea that the show is taking cues from “true crime” books and all of the unbelievable details they often contain.

Speaking of a similar scene that felt disconnected from the narrative of the original film, Hawley said that he asked himself, “‘Why is this in the movie?’ It has nothing to do with the movie—except the movie says, ‘This is a true story.’ They put it in there because it ‘happened.’ Otherwise you wouldn’t put it in there. The world of Fargo needs those elements; those random, odd, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction elements.”

It's also worth noting that the Coens's 2001 movie The Man Who Wasn't There, starring Billy Bob Thornton, featured a similarly out-of-nowhere UFO scene.

6. There was a voice coach on the Fargo set.

If you’ve ever met anyone who wasn’t a big fan of the Coen brothers' 1996 film, they probably pointed to the syrupy Minnesota accents as being too obnoxious to put up with for too long. Hawley was cognizant of that, too. Although he kept a voice coach on set, he had the actors minimize any attempt to lay it on thick. The accent “became a caricature after the movie,” he said. Allison Tolman, who played police deputy Molly Solverson in season 1, said her accent was inspired by listening to a Midwestern character on the 1990s Howie Mandel cartoon Bobby’s World.

7. FX felt they needed Billy Bob Thornton for Fargo.

Billy Bob Thornton and Colin Hanks in Fargo.Chris Large/© 2014, FX Networks. All rights reserved.

Oscar-winner Thornton portrayed philosophical hitman Lorne Malvo in the first season, a casting move that FX president John Landgraf said was mandatory for the show in order to find its footing. “We needed Billy Bob Thornton," Landgraf told a television critics panel in 2014, “but now the show, the title, the tone, the writing ... are the star of that show.”

8. Bad hair is a Fargo series tradition.

Jean Smart was cast in the second season as Floyd Gerhardt, the matriarch crime boss of a bunch of hooligan sons. Set in 1979, the 62-year-old Smart was asked to cut and dye her hair to appear more matronly. “They first day they cut and dyed and styled my hair, I burst into tears,” Smart said.

While Thornton sported an equally unfortunate cut in the first season, he seemed more pleased with it. "I got a bad haircut," he told Collider in 2014. "We had planned on dyeing my hair and having a dark beard, but I didn’t plan on having bangs. But then, instead of fixing it, I didn’t fix it because I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, 'Hang on a second here, this is like 1967 L.A. rock. I could be the bass player for Buffalo Springfield. This is good. Or, it’s the dark side of Ken Burns.'"

9. You need to watch Fargo really closely to catch all the Coen Brothers Easter eggs.

FX

Hawley’s Fargo doesn’t just pay homage to the feature that inspired it; if you watch closely, you’ll see obscure references to the Coens's entire filmography. A second-season episode panned over a diner placemat featuring a Hula Hoop in a nod to 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy; the word unguent is featured in both the film and show as a treatment for a bite and gunshot wound, respectively; a chalkboard ad for a White Russian drink special—a favorite of The Dude in The Big Lebowski—can be seen behind Martin Freeman.

10. Shooting on Fargo can be canceled when it gets too cold.

To mimic the frozen tundra of Minnesota in the winter, producers headed to the frozen tundra of Calgary in late 2013. Temperatures sometimes dropped to minus 30 degrees. On one particularly harsh day, producers noticed that a traffic cone had become so frozen it shattered into pieces when a wind swept through, dropping the temperature to minus 40. They called off shooting for the remainder of the afternoon.

11. The fake snow on Fargo can be irritating.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Carrie Coon in Fargo.© 2017, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

While there was plenty of real freezing to go around, the production couldn’t always rely on a steady stream of real snow. The show used a fake concoction made of shredded rice cakes that proved bothersome to the actors; it made their shoes so slick it was hard to walk without slipping, and breathing it in resulted in bronchial irritation.

12. Fargo, North Dakota got a little upset about Fargo.

When the series announced it would be taking advantage of the tax breaks available to television productions shooting in Canada, the city of Fargo, North Dakota, let out a collective sigh of disappointment. “I was afraid they might want to shoot it in Canada,” Charley Johnson, president of the city’s visitor’s bureau, said. The state has no film commission to offer any financial breaks, but they do have a wood chipper at their tourist center.

13. Bruce Campbell won the Ronald Reagan role on Fargo by mocking the former president.

Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan in Fargo.Chris Large/FX  Copyright 2015, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

Bruce Campbell figures he got the job portraying then-presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan in season 2 by mocking him. He and executive producer John Cameron went to high school together and kept in touch, which allowed Cameron to see Campbell do his version in the 1980s. “My kids grew up in a Reagan Era, they were young during that decade, so we mocked him good,” Campbell told The Hollywood Reporter. "So that must've been how that came in, that John was like, ‘OK. I've seen Bruce do Reagan for years’ and I'm sure Noah Hawley was at least intrigued."

14. Ewan McGregor fooled set visitors on Fargo.

Ewan McGregor as Ray Stussy in Fargo.Matthias Clamer/FX © 2017, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

In the third season, Ewan McGregor plays Emmit and Ray Stussy, two brothers with vastly different lifestyles. While Emmit is "the parking lot king of Minnesota" with a fortune to match, the scheming Ray has gone to seed, with straggly hair and a paunch. McGregor told Entertainment Weekly that when a car mechanic came on set to discuss Ray's Corvette, he had an hour-long conversation with the actor while he was in makeup for Ray. The next day, he was (re) introduced to McGregor and had no idea he had already spoken to him.

15. There's a detail in season 3 of Fargo you might not have noticed.

Ewan McGregor as Emmit Stussy in Fargo.Chris Large/FX © 2017, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

One major character's fate in season 3 of Fargo is to be relegated to a tiny office space. How small? As Noah Hawley told The Hollywood Reporter, each office entrance had two yellow lines in front of it to indicate they were hardly any bigger than a parking space. "Nobody probably noticed, but if you go back to the Stussy Lots Limited offices, outside of everybody's door, there are these two yellow lines on the floor that look like [a] parking place," Hawley said. "It's the sort of jokey thing where you can imagine them going, 'Oh, it's funny! This is my parking space office and this is your parking space office' and nobody probably notices, but it's there, for me, because I think that my job is to put it into the show so that it's part of the story."

16. Chris Rock agreed to be in Fargo without reading a script.

Chris Rock, Jeremie Harris, Corey Hendrix, and Glynn Turman in Fargo.Elizabeth Morris/FX Copyright 2020, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved

According to Noah Hawley, Chris Rock made a commitment to star in season 4 of the show without seeing much of anything on paper. Hawley phoned FX, told them the basic idea, and expressed interest in casting Rock. "Chris came to the set [of Hawley's 2019 film, Lucy in the Sky] two weeks later and I pitched him the thing and luckily he was a Fargo enthusiast and he was in," Hawley told Entertainment Weekly. "There wasn't a script for six more months. I've never done it that way before. There's always been a script first."

This story has been updated for 2020.