Disaster At Loos

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 203rd installment in the series.   

September 25-28, 1915: Disaster at Loos 

The bloodiest defeat suffered by the British so far in the First World War, Loos was a monument to the incredible bravery of British soldiers and the confusion or outright incompetence of their commanders. The attack proceeded despite a general acknowledgement that British artillery faced a dire shortage of artillery shells, using thousands of new, totally untested troops, and involving the first (also untested) British use of poison gas in the war. In short it was a recipe for disaster, and that is what they got. 

The assault would be carried out by the British First Army under General Douglas Haig, as part of French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s ambitious plan calling for simultaneous attacks by the French Tenth Army in Artois and the French Third and Fourth Armies in Champagne. Together, Joffre hoped these coordinated offensives would form the arms of a giant pincer, cutting off the German armies in northern France.

The British First Army was composed of the I Corps and IV Corps, which would carry out the initial attack, and XI Corps, held in reserve to exploit the hoped-for strategic breakthrough. The I Corps, under Hubert Gough, consisted of the 2nd Division, 7th Division, and 9th Division; the IV Corps, under Henry Rawlinson, the 1st Division, 15th (Scottish) Division, and 47th (London) Division; and the XI Corps, under Richard Haking, the 12th (Eastern) Division, 21st Division, 24th Division, 46th (North Midland) Division, and the Guards Division, as well as the Cavalry Corps – although only the 21st and 24th Divisions were available when the battle began. 

The six divisions in the I and IV Corps who would lead the attack were given a daunting task. Although they enjoyed a two-to-one advantage over the Germans to begin with, the terrain was extremely unfavorable for an attack on the well-entrenched defenders: across the battlefield the German trenches were at least two hundred yards away from the British trenches, and in some places as much as 4,000 yards – all over a flat, featureless plain gently sloping upwards to elevated German positions, giving the latter an ideal vantage point for artillery spotting. 

After a final bombardment which mostly failed to cut the barbed wire in front of the German trenches (above), at dawn on September 25, 1915, the British opened 5,500 cylinders containing over 150 tons of chlorine gas, relying on prevailing winds to carry the gas over the German lines – but the weather failed to cooperate, and on the British left the gas swept back over the British lines, causing 2,200 casualties before the attack even began. 

Following this distinctly unpromising start, the British attack fell prey to further confusion, as some troops couldn’t hear the orders to attack over the incredible din of the artillery: the 15th (Scottish) Division, assigned to cross 1,500 yards to capture Loos itself, only realized it was time to attack when the division’s bagpiper marched along the parapet of the trench, piping them to battle – an incredible act of bravery for which he later received the Victoria Cross.

The troops who went over the top found themselves in a surreal and supremely dangerous scene, advancing across flat, open fields behind the gas cloud, mingling with smoke from artillery shells and lit by flares and “star shells,” while German machine guns and rifles crackled (top). One soldier in the London Irish of the 47th Division, Patrick MacGill, recalled: 

The air was vicious with bullets; a million invisible birds flicked their wings very close to my face. Ahead the clouds of smoke, sluggish low-lying fog, and fumes of bursting shells, thick in volume, receded towards the German trenches, and formed a striking background for the soldiers who were marching up a low slope towards the enemy’s parapet, which the smoke still hid from view. 

Even more bizarre, to show their disdain for danger the London Irish of the 47th Division dribbled a football across no man’s land as they advanced (below). 

Another soldier, John Jackson of the Scottish 6th Camerons, remembered the advance on Loos, where he states they killed Germans trying to surrender: 

In short rushes we kept on, grim and determined, through a tangled growth of long grass, till we came to the enemy front line… In spite of growing losses in our own ranks we kept on driving the Germans before us and soon had them on the run for the village, and here they set up a desperate defence. Their machine guns took a terrible toll from our thinning ranks, but still we hung on till we were again in hand-to-hand conflict with them. From house to house, and cellar to cellar, we hunted them. Machine-gunners slaying us from their hidden posts, threw up their hands crying “Kamerad”, when we got within striking distance, but they deserved and received no quarter. Cold steel and bombs did their duty then, and the village was strewn with dead and running with blood. 

The attackers suffered breathtaking casualties, as thousands were gunned down in the barbed wire entanglements, with the 47th Division, 7th Division, and 9th Division suffering especially heavy losses; the 9th Division was tasked with capturing a fortress-like complex called the Hohenzollern Redoubt, while the 7th Division had to capture another strongpoint called “The Quarries.” But despite the appalling losses, through sheer willpower they succeeded in capturing the German trenches along a stretch 4.5 miles long and up to two miles deep. 

The battle had reached a critical moment, and decisions now would later stir enormous controversy: Haig and Gough both claimed that if they had been able to employ the 21st Division and 24th Division, held in reserve, to follow up the gains of the 9th Division on the afternoon of September 25, they would have completed the strategic breakthrough and shatter the German front. However British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French refused to allow them to use the reserves at first, fearing a sudden German counterattack and arguing that the first wave troops should be able to carry the offensive through to the end. 

As a result, the reserves didn’t arrive at the front until the evening of September 25 and didn’t go into action until the following day – a crucial delay which gave the Germans a chance to rush reinforcements to plug the gap in their lines. Overnight seven new German divisions arrived and dug in along new defensive positions, including a long, low hill east of Loos called “Hill 70.” Much of the fighting over the following days would be a futile contest for control of the hill. 

One of the British reinforcements, W. Walker, recalled moving up the frontline positions in heavy autumn rain, which turned the battlefield into a quagmire, and seeing the ruins of Loos on the night of September 25 (above): 

It began to grow dark. Vivid wicked flashes could be seen and bright dazzling balls of red, green, and yellow light illuminated the flattish land in front… After stumbling on for another half-hour, sometimes up to the knees in liquid mud, I could observe by the light of the sky signals the ruined outline of a village. It was Loos. The moon now shone revealing the roofless walls of the houses, the open spaces where houses had once stood, marked by heaps of rubble. The village was slowly vanishing under the pounding of the guns. A German trench ran along the side of the street. 

Another one of the reinforcements, James N. Hall, recalled the chaotic scene as they waited to move forward through the unfamiliar trenches: 

We halted to wait for our trench guides at the village of Vermelles, about three miles back of our lines. The men lay down thankfully in the mud and many were soon asleep despite the terrific noise. Our batteries, concealed in the ruins of houses, were keeping up a steady fire and the German guns were replying almost as hotly. The weird flashes lit up the shattered walls with a fascinating, bizarre effect. By their light, I saw men lying with their heads thrown back over their pack-sacks, their rifles leaning across their bodies; others standing in attitudes of suspended animation. The noise was deafening.

Unbeknownst to them, the men of the 21st Division and 24th Division were in for an even more brutal reception than the first wave of attackers (most of them so depleted they could contribute little to the second push). The assault on Hill 70 began at 11 am on September 26, and by nightfall the 21st Division and 24th Division were basically destroyed, while the 1st Division, assigned to capture the nearby village of Hulluch, was in tatters. Walker recalled the attack on German positions on Hill 70:

The shell-fire was deafening enough, but the clatter that commenced with our further advance was abominable. It was as if the enemy were attacking with a fleet of motorcycles – it was the hellish machine guns. I saw no foe. Where he was I couldn’t gamble: somewhere in front, how distant or how near no one seemed to know. The firing was indescribably fierce; an invisible hail of lead winged past my ears unceasingly; one flicked my sleeve. How pitiful it is to recall. Our chaps fell like grass under the mower, mostly shot in the guts… Groans and shouting were added to the clamour. 

At some point in the afternoon Walker became a casualty as well: 

A bullet hit me; I feel its sharp sting yet; it felled me to the ground… it had pierced a hole in my right elbow. There was nothing for it but to walk, and, although the fire was growing intense, I managed to dodge the rest… It took me a long time to get to the casualty clearing station. There appeared to be hundreds of wounded all making for the same place… On arrival at the dressing station, came inoculation against tetanus; two delirious days spent in a ruined byre awaiting the ambulance. 

The experience of lying out in the open for days, either waiting for stretcher bearers or an ambulance, was a common one for wounded men at Loos, as at other battles. Harold Peat, a Canadian private, remembered lying wounded in the ruins of a farmhouse for two days before he was rescued: “I never lost consciousness. Darkness came and dawn. Another day went by and the shelling went on as before. Another night, another dawn and then two Highland stretcher-bearers came in.” Meanwhile troops occupying the captured German trenches confronted gruesome tasks, as described by Hall: “Many of the men had been literally blown to pieces, and it was necessary to gather the fragments in blankets. For weeks afterward we had to eat and sleep and work and think among such awful sights. We became hardened to them finally.” 

The last available reserve, the Guards Division, arrived to reinforce the beleaguered British troops on Hill 70 on September 27, but it was far too late to restore the momentum of the offensive. On September 28 the British positions had stabilized in a new defensive line, although the Germans succeeded in recapturing the Hohenzollern Redoubt on October 3rd. By October 8th, when a German counterattack failed, the Battle of Loos was effectively over. 

To the east the French offensive in Champagne was also grinding to a halt amid similar scenes of carnage and suffering. At first the French, who had a much larger supply of artillery shells than the British, succeeded in destroying the German frontline trenches – but the attack was frustrated by barbed wire in front of the German reserve trenches which lay behind. Mildred Aldrich, an American woman living in a small French village, transcribed a letter from a French soldier describing the French attack: 

At daybreak the bombardment recommenced--a terrible storm of shells of every calibre--bombs, torpedoes [mortar shells]--flew overhead to salute the Boches, and to complete the destruction which had been going on for three days… All along our front, in both directions, all we could see was a thick cloud of dust and smoke… Once there I seem to remember nothing in detail. It was as if, by enchantment, that I found myself in the midst of the struggle, in heaps of dead and dying. When I fell, and found myself useless in the fight, I dragged myself, on my stomach, towards our trenches. I met stretcher-bearers who were willing to carry me, but I was able to crawl, and so many of my comrades were worse off, that I refused. I crept two kilometres like that until I found a dressing-station. I was suffering terribly with the bullet in my ankle. They extracted it there and dressed the ankle, but I remained, stretched on the ground, two days before I was removed, and I had nothing to eat until I reached here yesterday--four days after I fell. But that could not be helped. There were so many to attend to. 

Edmond Genet, an American volunteering with the French Foreign Legion, described the effects of the French artillery bombardment in Champagne: 

The bombardment of the German trenches before the charge was terrific. The German line looked like a wall of fire and hellish flames from the bursting shells… We followed up the Colonials and passed part of the late morning in the captured German trenches. They were battered beyond description and filled with dead – mostly Germans… The sight of the dead lying about was awful. Most of them had been literally torn to pieces by the exploding shells. The sight of one will never pass from my memory. A Colonial was in a sitting posture against a small embankment. There was an expression of agonizing terror on his features, and no wonder, for below his waist he had been blown to shreds. One of his feet, the only thing recognizable of his lower anatomy, was lying several yards in front of him. I think we all shuddered as we passed.

Like the British, the French offensive also suffered from a failure to bring up reinforcements in time, according to the soldier Louis Barthas, who described the unnerving experience of trying to navigate through unfamiliar trenches filled with wounded men: 

We passed through the ruined village of La Targette; then we got caught up in an entanglement of trenches, crossing and recrossing the same places without finding the right path. We came upon men, isolated or in small groups, heading to the rear. Most gave no response to our questions. Others exclaimed, “The poor guys, the poor guys…” or “It’s horrible, frightful.” They seemed half-crazy… Soon whole battalions and companies were getting mixed up in an inextricable confusion… 

In a letter home Genet painted a picture of abject misery as the French offensive petered out in the final days of September: 

We continued on our advance until darkness set in and lay all that night in a drenching rain in watery mud. Sleep was practically impossible. Shells were dropping around us every few minutes and anyway the horrors of the day just closed were too awful to allow pleasant dreams or even sleep to follow. All night the cries of the dying could be heard. I felt as though I were in some weird nightmare. I wish it had been, for then I could have awakened and found it to be only a dream. 

The Allied losses were staggering: the British suffered 60,000 casualties, including 11,000 dead (among them Rudyard Kipling’s son John), while the French suffered 192,000 casualties, presumably with a similar proportion killed in action. According to the British soldier Jackson, “The losses of the division ran into the thousands and our own battalion had lost 700 out of 950 who went into action.” Genet, in the French Foreign Legion, estimated: “In an attack we made on September 28, out of our company of 250 there are not quite 60 left…” The Germans sustained around 150,000 casualties. 

British and French newspapers did their best to paint the fall offensive as a great victory, but ordinary people were fast becoming inured to official propaganda. Aldrich later wrote in her diary: “For several days our hearts were high. Then there began to creep into the papers hints that it had been a gallant advance, but not a great victory, and far too costly, and that there had been blunders…” And the British diarist Vera Brittain remembered the slow dawning of reality on the home front:

“Two Real Victories at Last!” announced the Daily Mail in exuberant headlines… Gradually, after a few days in which the awful sluggishness of the hours seemed a specially devised torture of hell, came the usual apologetic modifications of our “great victory,” and, still later, the lists showing that price that we had paid for this sorry achievement. The country, though growing accustomed to horror, staggered at the devastating magnitude of the cost of Loos. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

7 Weird Super Bowl Halftime Acts

Al Bello, Getty Images
Al Bello, Getty Images

Shakira and Jennifer Lopez seem like natural choices to perform the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl, but the event didn’t always feature musical acts from major pop stars. Michael Jackson kicked off the trend at Super Bowl XXVII in 1993, but prior to that, halftime shows weren’t a platform for the hottest celebrities of the time. They centered around themes instead, and may have featured appearances from Peanuts characters, Jazzercisers, or a magician dressed like Elvis. In honor of Super Bowl LIV on February 2, we’ve rounded up some of the weirdest acts in halftime show history.

1. Return of the Mickey Mouse Club

The era of Super Bowl halftimes before wardrobe malfunctions, illuminati conspiracy theories, and Left Shark was a more innocent time. For 1977’s event, the Walt Disney Company produced a show that doubled as a squeaky-clean promotion of its brand. Themed “Peace, Joy, and Love,” the Super Bowl XI halftime show opened with a 250-piece band rendition of “It’s a Small World (After All).” Disney also used the platform to showcase its recently revamped Mickey Mouse Club.

2. 88 Grand Pianos and 300 Jazzercisers

The theme of the halftime show at Super Bowl XXII in 1988 was “Something Grand.” Naturally, it featured 88 tuxedoed pianists playing 88 grand pianos. Rounding out the program were 400 swing band performers, 300 Jazzercisers, 44 Rockettes, two marching bands, and Chubby Checker telling everyone to “Twist Again."

3. Elvis Impersonator Performs the World’s Largest Card Trick

Many of the music industry's most successful pop stars—like Prince, Madonna, and, uh, Milli Vanilli—were at the height of their fame in 1989, but none of them appeared at Super Bowl XXIII. Instead, the NFL hired an Elvis Presley-impersonating magician to perform. The show, titled “BeBop Bamboozled,” was a tribute to the 1950s, and it featured Elvis Presto performing “the world’s largest card trick.” It also may have included the world's largest eye exam: The show boasted 3D effects, and viewers were urged to pick up special glasses before the game. If the visuals didn't pop like they were supposed to, people were told to see an eye doctor.

4. The Peanuts Salute New Orleans

Super Bowl XXIV featured one of the last halftime acts that was completely devoid of any musical megastars. The biggest celebrity at the 1990 halftime show was Snoopy. Part of the show’s theme was the “40th Anniversary of 'Peanuts,'” and to celebrate the milestone, performers dressed as Peanuts characters and danced on stage. The other half of the theme was “Salute to New Orleans”—not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the comic strip.

5. A Tribute to the Winter Olympics

Super Bowl XXVI preceded the 1992 Winter Olympics—a fact that was made very clear by the event’s halftime. The show was titled “Winter Magic” and it paid tribute to the winter games with ice skaters, snowmobiles, and a cameo from the 1980 U.S. hockey team. Other acts, like a group of parachute-pants-wearing children performing the “Frosty the Snowman Rap,” were more generally winter-themed than specific to the Olympics. About 22 million viewers changed the channel during halftime to watch In Living Color’s Super Bowl special, which may have convinced the NFL to hire Michael Jackson the following year.

6. Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye

“Peace, Joy, and Love” wasn’t the only Disney-helmed Super Bowl halftime. In 1995, Disney produced a halftime show called “Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye” to tease the new Disneyland ride of the same name. It centered around a skit in which actors playing Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood stole the Vince Lombardi Trophy from an exotic temple, and it included choreographed stunts, fiery special effects, and a snake. Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett were also there.

7. The Blues Brothers, Minus John Belushi

The 1990s marked an odd period for halftime shows as they moved from schlocky themed variety shows to major music events. Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 perfectly encapsulates this transition period. James Brown and ZZ Top performed, but the headliners were the Blues Brothers. John Belushi had been dead for more than a decade by that point, so Jim Belushi took his place beside Dan Aykroyd. John Goodman was also there to promote the upcoming movie Blues Brother 2000. The flashy advertisement didn’t have the impact they had hoped for and the film was a massive flop when it premiered.

15 Fun Facts About Betty White

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Happy birthday, Betty White! In honor of the ever-sassy star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls's 98th birthday, let's celebrate with a collection of fun facts about her life and legacy. 

1. Her name is Betty, not Elizabeth.

On January 17th, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White explained her parents named her "Betty" specifically because they didn't like many of the nicknames derived from "Elizabeth." Forget your Beths, your Lizas, your Ellies. She's Betty.

2. She's a Guinness World Record holder.

In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years (and counting) in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they'd be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.

3. Her first television appearance is lost to history.

A photo of Betty White
Getty Images

Even White can't remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness Book of World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'" 

4. White's initial rise to stardom was derailed by World War II.

Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything." 

5. Her first sitcom hit was in the early 1950s.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life With Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who'd go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis The Menace, Leave It To Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first Emmy nomination of 21 (so far). Of these, she has won five times.

6. White loves a parade.

From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza's Lorne Greene. But that's not all. For 20 years (1956-1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, "On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade."

7. She has been married three times.


Getty Images

White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker's rural Ohio chicken farm, White fled back to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show biz. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.

8. Her meet-cute with husband number three happened on Password.

Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden's engagement ring (he wore it around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame sit side-by-side.

9. White originally auditioned for the role of Blanche on The Golden Girls.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble's promiscuous party girl because she'd long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles in the audition. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.

10. If she hadn't been an actor, she'd have been a zookeeper.

"Hands down," she confessed in a 2014 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White's reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only does she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she may travel, but also she's a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who has donated "tens of thousands of dollars" over the past 40 years. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.

11. She passed on a role in As Good as It Gets because of an animal cruelty scene.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt, in the Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson's curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. On The Joy Behar Show White explained, "All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there's a dog in the building that's barking or they don't like—boom! They do it." She complained to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.

12. A Facebook campaign made White the oldest person to ever host Saturday Night Live.

In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (nearly a million) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show's female alums returned, also won rave reviews, and gave the show's highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.

13. She is the oldest person to earn an Emmy nomination.


Getty Images

In 2014, White earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program for the senior citizen-centric prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She was 92. She also holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations, between her first (1951) and last (so far).  

14. She loves junk food.

The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White is concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White's snacking habits, "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred, "She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries." 

15. She wants Robert Redford.

A photo of actor Robert Redford
Getty Images

White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.'” Though she has more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White has never worked with the Out of Africa star, who is 14 years her junior.

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