Battle of Neuve Chapelle

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 173rd installment in the series.

March 10-13, 1915: Battle of Neuve Chapelle

The first big British offensive of the war took place at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle from March 10-13, 1915, when British, Indian, and Canadian troops captured the village of the same name, completely destroying it in the process. For these gains – a few miles of French countryside centered on a small patch of rubble – the British suffered a total of around 11,600 casualties, while inflicting around 10,000 on their German foes, in addition to 1,700 Germans taken prisoner. This they claimed as a victory, reflecting the drastic lowering of expectations that accompanied trench warfare.

The battle resulted in part from political and diplomatic tensions between the Allies: while they recognized British defensive prowess at Ypres and Givenchy, the French and Russians argued they were doing the lion’s share of the fighting (in Champagne and Poland, respectively) and demanded the British pull their weight by mounting more offensives of their own. On February 5, 1915, British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French told his officers that come spring he expected them to return to the attack, calling for constant raids to wear the Germans down through attrition and exhaustion. He also began planning a major offensive to demonstrate the British Army’s ability to undertake large-scale operations.

By early March there were half a million soldiers under British command in France, including Canadian and Indian troops, allowing French to present the forthcoming offensive as an “Imperial” venture, uniting all the patriotic elements of the British Empire. He assigned the task to the British First Army under Sir Douglas Haig, who shared his belief that victory at Neuve Chapelle might clear the way for a campaign to liberate Lille. Furthermore, an advance here might allow them to sever German rail communications to the south, threatening to cut off the entire German salient where it bulged into northern France. However as so often this proved wildly overoptimistic.

“Awful Tornado”

Having located a weak spot in the German defenses north of La Bassée and west of Aubers, in early March the British secretly assembled an overwhelming force, ultimately sending 48 British battalions numbering around 40,000 men against just three Westphalian battalions from the German Sixth Army under Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht. The attack would begin with the most intense bombardment in history on the morning of March 10, 1915, exceeding even the German onslaughts at Ypres, with over 500 guns of various calibers massed along a front just a few miles long (below, British field artillery in action).

After pulverizing the German trenches the big guns would gradually increase their range to provide a protective “creeping barrage,” behind which the attackers could advance in relative safety. The British employed aerial photography on a large scale for the first time at Neuve Chapelle, precisely mapping out the enemy trench system to guide the bombardment and infantry advance; during the battle British warplanes would also attack enemy communications and rail lines behind the front to prevent the Germans from bringing up reinforcements.

By all accounts the opening bombardment was utterly terrifying. Herbert Stewart, a British supply officer, described the incredible scenes of destruction his diary as hundreds of guns began firing at 7:30am on March 10:

As soon as the range had been accurately secured, a tremendous fire was opened on the village of Neuve Chapelle and the neighbouring trenches occupied by the enemy… Under this hail of flying metal, the village, the neighbouring trenches, and the whole German position selected for attack were blotted from sight under a pall of smoke and dust. The earth shook and the air was filled with the thunderous roar of the exploding shells. To the watching thousands the sight was a terrible one: amidst the clouds of smoke and dust they could see human bodies with earth and rock, portions of houses, and fragments of trench hurting through the air.

Another British soldier echoed Stewart’s account, providing an additional chilling detail:

[It] seemed impossible that any living thing could emerge from the wreckage created by that awful tornado of lyddite [high explosive] and shrapnel. Heads arms and legs and mangled bodies were flying about in horrible confusion; the upper half of a German officer, with the cap thrust down over the distorted face, fell in the front-line British trenches.

A few days later, on March 13, an anonymous British nurse recounted a conversation with wounded soldiers in her own diary, confirming these details: “Some of them who were near enough to see the effect of our bombardment on the enemy's trenches say they saw men, legs, and arms shot into the air. And the noise! – they gasp in telling you about it.”

In many places the shelling destroyed German trenches and sent the remaining defenders fleeing for safety, as hoped. But some German defenses were left more or less intact, and the initial infantry assault at 8:05am had uneven results. Leading the first wave were four battalions from the Indian Meerut Division, which succeeded in crossing no-man’s-land and occupying the German frontline and support trenches in just fifteen minutes, taking prisoner hundreds of stunned defenders, then pressing on to capture Neuve Chapelle itself around 9am (below, Indian soldiers at Neuve Chapelle).

The Indians had achieved a limited, temporary breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle, but the British weren’t able to exploit the tactical victory to achieve a decisive strategic victory – a common refrain in the First World War. Haig ordered a second attack in the northern sector by the British 7th and 8th Divisions, leading to heavy losses on both sides, including more German prisoners (below, Germans surrendering at Neuve Chapelle). Private Montague S. Goodbar of the Cameron Highlanders confided in his diary for March 10: “With the constant rapid fire my rifle steamed like a boiling kettle and became so hot that I could scarcely hold it. During this time I think we managed to bag a good few of the enemy between us. Their parapet was do badly damaged by our high explosives that they stuffed the gaps up with their dead.”

But the Germans rushed reinforcements to this area and eventually managed to reestablish a defensive line along the front, frustrating the British advance to both north and south and so preventing the two attacking forces from closing the pincer around them. In short, although the British has enough troops to achieve an initial breakthrough, they didn’t have enough reserves to continue the offensive by overrunning new German defenses.

Two days later, on March 12, 1915, German Sixth Army commander Crown Prince Rupprecht ordered a counterattack, which for the most part failed to eject the British from their hard-won positions, swiftly fortified with new trenches. Stewart described the bloody outcome of the German assault, led by officers who were the epitome of doomed valor:

A solid mass of men debouched from the trees, led by their officers, two of whom were mounted on horseback and headed the charge with drawn swords, as in the battles of a century ago. Such courage compels admiration, but it is madness in the face modern rifles and machine-guns. A murderous fire met the advancing German infantry, and in a few seconds that column of living men was but a heap of dead or writhing bodies, a sight so appalling as to sicken even the hardened soldiers who had seen eight months of slaughter.

As the battle swept back and forth across the battlefield from March 10-12, new areas suddenly became “no-man’s-land,” forcing both sides to leave wounded soldiers lying out as the battle unfolded, sometimes for days at a time. On March 12 Goodbar wrote: “We proceed to cross the field which was behind the original German trench. What a gruesome sight! Dead and wounded are strewn everywhere, the latter groaning and moaning in a most heartbreaking manner, there are British and Germans mixed up lying side by side, rifles and equipment everywhere.” An Indian officer, Amar Singh, painted a similar picture: “The place was very crowded and there was no end of the wounded which were being brought in on stretchers…  There was a terrible confusion… The Germans were shelling the road very hotly… On both sides of the road were lying the dead and the wounded. The groans of the latter were most pitiful.” William Boyd, working with a British field ambulance, described the scene in an improvised field hospital after two days of fighting:

The dressing-station was formerly a school, and every room was so packed with wounded, lying on stretchers on the floor, that it was with the greatest difficulty that we could move about. It was literally almost impossible to put your foot down without treading on a wounded man. The condition of the wounds was indescribable, for many of them were two days old, and during that time the wounded men had simply lain out on the battlefield, the furious fighting rendering the evacuation of casualties an impossibility… The head injuries were the most frightful, for in some cases the greater part of the face was smashed in by shrapnel, while in others the nose, eye, and greater part of the cheek had been torn away, leaving a great, red, bleeding cavity.

As if to symbolize the martyrdom of thousands of dead and wounded soldiers, after the battle the British discovered part of a damaged crucifix in Neuve Chapelle, the remnant of a destroyed church, which became known as “The Christ of the Trenches” (top). Unsurprisingly the incredible artillery barrages had reduced the village itself to rubble (above). And still fighting continued along the whole front, day in and day out. On March 15, 1915 a British volunteer nurse wrote:

Woke up just as we arrived at Bailleul to hear most incessant cannonade going on I ever heard, even at Ypres. The sky is continually lit up with the flashes from the guns – it is a pitch-dark night – and you can hear the roar of the howitzers above the thud-thud of the others… I have a boy of 22 with both legs off. He is dazed and white, and wants shifting very often. Each time you fix him up he says, “That's champion.”

 See the previous installment or all entries.

The Most Successful Entertainment Production in History Might Just Surprise You

Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images
Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images

Last year, Marvel Studios capped off an unprecedented run of success with Avengers: Endgame, a movie promoted as the culmination of over 10 years of storytelling. The film made $2.8 billion, unseating 2009’s Avatar and knocking 1997’s Titanic down to third place. With nearly $3 billion in ticket sales, you would think Endgame would count as the most successful entertainment production of all time—be it a single movie, book, album, or video game.

It isn’t.

While it earned a staggering amount of money, Endgame is hobbled by the fact that theatrical runs last just a few weeks or months. To really roll in the dough, it helps to have a combination of high ticket prices and a show that runs almost in perpetuity. That’s why it’s another Disney production, the Broadway adaption of The Lion King, that can make a credible claim to being the most financially rewarding entertainment effort of all time. Since debuting in 1997, the stage show has grossed $9.1 billion. (The 1994 film, 2019 live action remake, and merchandising aren’t included in that total. If they were, the number rises to $11.6 billion.)

A theater sign for 'The Lion King' is pictured in New York City in March 2003
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The musical, adapted by Julie Taymor, follows the story of the animated original, with lion cub Simba learning to accept his role as king of the Serengeti Plains. It’s estimated the show has been mounted 25 times globally in nine different languages, with more than 100 million people purchasing a ticket to see it.

Does that make Endgame a distant second? Not quite. Another long-running musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, has grossed more than $6 billion since its 1988 debut. The 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto 5 cleared $6 billion in 2018. And if one were to account for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind made $3.44 billion.

The Lion King does have one asterisk, however. If inflation is taken into consideration, then 1978’s arcade classic Space Invaders comes out the winner. The popular coin-op game—which was later ported over to the Atari 2600—was a smash hit. By 1983, it had made $3.8 billion. Accounting for inflation, it earned $13.9 billion. What’s even more impressive is that unlike big-ticket movies and stage shows, Space Invaders did it one quarter at a time.

20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

A still from Netflix's The Devil Next Door (2019).
A still from Netflix's The Devil Next Door (2019).
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. Making a Murderer (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it returned for a second season in 2018.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. The Staircase (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's addition of new episodes in 2018 led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Flint Town (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. The Jinx (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO Now and Hulu

5. Wild Wild Country (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. Wormwood (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Five Came Back (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. The Devil Next Door (2019)

In 1980s Cleveland, John Demjanjuk was living a quiet life as a grandfather and auto worker. Suddenly, he was being extradited to Israel over accusations he was once notorious Nazi concentration camp monster Ivan the Terrible. As Demjanjuk mounts a defense, the trial captivates a country—but was he really the monster? This riveting series will have you guessing until the very end.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Ugly Delicious (2018-)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. Evil Genius (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck detonated as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. The Confession Tapes (2019)

A spare room. One or two detectives. A weary suspect. That's the set-up for this series that lets archival footage of police interrogations tell its own arresting stories.

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. Our Planet (2019)

Be amazed at the sensational vistas and eclectic wildlife with this beautifully-photographed trek through some of nature's most astounding sights—and the environmental perils that affect them. David Attenborough narrates.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Theodore Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. The Innocent Man (2018)

After two brutal murders in 1980s Oklahoma, four men are convicted of the crimes. All of them maintain their innocence, causing observers to question whether they were guilty or themselves victims of police coercion. This drama is based on John Grisham's 2006 book of the same name; Grisham executive produces.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. Last Chance U (2016-)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. Later seasons switch focus to a team out of Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. Vice (2013-)

The series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens. The first six seasons are available on HBO, with a seventh airing on Showtime in 2020.

Where to watch it: HBO Go

17. Chef's Table (2015-)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. There's no shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. The Toys That Made Us (2017-)

Who knew the origin of classic toy lines could be so dramatic? This series puts the spotlight on the creative friction that led to some of the most iconic playthings of the 20th century, from Transformers to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Where to watch it: Netflix

19. The Eighties (2016)

CNN's series highlighting the pop culture of the neon-colored decade boasts familiar talking heads like Tom Hanks and enough nostalgia to keep you afloat for weeks. The network's The Seventies and The Nineties are also available.

Where to watch it: Netflix

20. Bobby Kennedy for President (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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