Agreeing Armageddon – The Somme

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 213th installment in the series.

December 8, 1915: Agreeing Armageddon – The Somme 

After the twin disasters of the Second Battle of Champagne and Loos, the French Army and British Expeditionary Force paused to regroup, resupply, bring up fresh troops and prepare for a second winter in the trenches. But the failure of these offensives did nothing to alter the strategic outlook of the men directing the war on the Western Front, and from December 6-8, 1915, top Allied commanders meeting behind closed doors agreed to a plan that would result in one of the bloodiest battles in history – the Somme. 

As representatives from France, Britain, Russia, Italy, and Serbia gathered at the Paris suburb of Chantilly for the Second Inter-Allied Conference (top; the first was in August), the situation was looking grim. Russia was temporarily out of the game following huge losses of men, material, and territory during the Central Powers’ successful summer offensive; Serbia was being crushed; Italy had achieved nothing in multiple attacks on the Isonzo front; and the British and French were just about to throw in the towel at Gallipoli.   


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To turn the situation around, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre proposed a bold plan involving simultaneous attacks on all fronts in order to cancel out the strategic advantage conferred by the enemy’s central position; by hitting Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire from every side at once, they would (hopefully) prevent them from shuttling troops back and forth between the different fronts to see off threats one by one, finally allowing the Allies to exploit their advantage in manpower. 

The memorandum presented by the French to the other Allies at Chantilly summarized the threat posed by the enemy’s central position: 

In the present situation the Germans are able to add 10 divisions, no longer required in Serbia, to their forces in reserve - about 12 divisions - on the French front.  Combined with the troops which could with safety be withdrawn from the Russian front, a mass of 25 to 30 divisions could be assembled.  If the enemy is permitted to carry out these movements, he will employ this force, acting on interior lines, on each front in succession… 

To prevent this, the memorandum advised, “The Allied armies ought to resume the general offensive on the Franco-British, Italian and Russian fronts as soon as they are in a state to do so. All the efforts of the Coalition must be exerted in the preparation and execution of this decisive action, which will only produce its full effect as a co-ordination of offensives.” 

In various theatres, the coordinated campaigns would eventually include Russia’s failed Lake Naroch Offensive on the Eastern Front in March 1916, followed by the stunning success of the Brusilov Offensive that summer; a Russian advance into eastern Anatolia on the Caucasian front; the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo, resulting in predictable failure, on the Italian front; and subsidiary campaigns by Britain against the Turks in the Sinai and Arabia (the Mesopotamian theatre was about to take a disastrous turn with the siege of Kut). The French also managed to persuade the reluctant British to keep the recently occupied position in Salonika in northern Greece, which would now be reinforced with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force from Gallipoli, thus threatening Bulgaria and maybe even encouraging Romania to join the Allies. 

However the main effort would fall to Britain and France on the Western Front, where Joffre contemplated a giant combined offensive against the German salient in northern France sometime in the spring or summer of 1916, focusing on the enemy’s defensive positions on both sides of the Somme River in Picardy. Joffre and BEF commander Sir John French (who was about to be replaced by Sir Douglas Haig) believed that concentrated, overwhelming artillery firepower, combined with control of the skies and huge numerical superiority on the ground, would allow them to shatter the German Second Army and threaten all the enemy armies to the southeast with encirclement, forcing the Germans into a general retreat. 


The Allies were prepared to commit phenomenal numbers of men and guns to this incredibly ambitious plan, calling for an attack on a 60-mile-long front: indeed, in addition to the British Fourth Army and French Sixth Army, the British were prepared to set aside an entire, new “Reserve Army” (later the Fifth Army) to exploit the hoped-for breakthrough. Altogether the British would advance with 400,000 men; to support this huge effort they would build new roads, railroads, and power stations, collect a fleet of thousands of trucks and other vehicles, and create a network of hundreds of miles of telephone wire.   

With the shell shortages of 1914-1915 finally easing, the Allies would for the first time have firepower to match the Germans: with over 1,500 guns and howitzers amassed, the preliminary bombardment at the Somme would last a week and consume 1.6 million shells, with virtually continuous firing during this period to pulverize German trenches and strongholds. To finish it off the British would tunnel 19 giant mines under the German positions, including one with 27 tons of high explosives, which together generated the largest man-made explosion in history up to that point. 

On paper the plan of attack looked invincible – but reality failed to live up to expectations. For one thing, many of the British troops were fresh recruits in Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener’s “New Army,” with plenty of enthusiasm but no combat experience. Furthermore the “creeping barrage” of artillery, meant to clear the way for the advancing infantry, was a mostly untested technique, and aerial observation failed to deliver the precise targeting of German artillery hoped for. Meanwhile, in addition to building a second line of defenses and starting a third, the Germans had also built deep dugouts, tunneled 40 feet or more below the surface, capable of sheltering entire battalions through the most punishing bombardments, to reemerge when the British and French infantry began their advance. 

The most important factor by far, however, was something none of the Allied commanders could have known – a plan already germinating in the mind of the German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who was also contemplating a mighty battle to end the war. As it happened the German blow would fall first, at a place called Verdun. 

“In Flanders Fields” 

On May 3, 1915, amidst the chaos of the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer, wrote a few short verses that were fated to become the iconic poem of the First World War. Wildly popular following its publication by the British magazine Punch on December 8, 1915, “In Flanders Fields” would go on to be used for propaganda purposes (especially in support of recruiting efforts) but is today appreciated more for its simple, lyrical encapsulation of the tragedy of the First World War. It also led to the adoption of the red poppy as a symbol of memory and support for veterans, especially in Britain. 

In Flanders Fields 

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

See the previous installment or all entries.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

Protective Masks with Patterns.
Triple7Deals

This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

Buy it: $20 for four (50 percent off)

2. CE- and FDA-Approved KN95 Mask; $50 for 10

A woman putting on a protective mask.
BetaFresh

You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

Buy it: $50 for 10 (50 percent off)

3. Three-Ply Masks; $13 for 10

Woman wearing a three-ply protective mask.
XtremeTime

These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

Buy it: $13 for 10 (50 percent off)

4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

A batch of disposable masks.
Odash, Inc.

If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

Buy it: $44 for 50 (41 percent off)

5. Polyester Masks; $22 for 5

Polyester protective masks.
Triple7Deals

These masks are a blend of 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex, and they work to block particles from spreading in the air. And because they're easily compressed, they can travel with you in your bag or pocket, whether you're going to work or out to the store.

Buy it: $22 for five (56 percent off)

6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

Protective mask case.
Triple7Deals

You're going to need to have a stash of masks on hand for the foreseeable future, so it's a good idea to protect the ones you’ve got. This face mask protector case is waterproof and dust-proof to preserve your mask as long as possible.

Buy it: $15 for three (50 percent off)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Q&A: Kristen Bell Celebrates Diversity In Her New Kid's Book, The World Needs More Purple People

Jim Spellman/Getty Images
Jim Spellman/Getty Images

Kristen Bell is one of those household names that brings to mind a seemingly endless list of outstanding performances in both TV and film. She is Veronica Mars. She is the very memorable Sarah Marshall. She's the voice of Gossip Girl. She just recently wrapped up her NBC series The Good Place. Your nieces and nephews likely know her as Princess Anna from the Frozen films. She also has one of the most uplifting and positive presences on social media.

Now, adding to her long list of accomplishments, Kristen Bell is the published author of a new children’s book called The World Needs More Purple People. Born out of seeing how cultural conversations were skewing more toward the things that divide us, the new picture book—which Bell co-authored with Benjamin Hart—encourages kids to see what unites us all as humans.

We spoke with Kristen Bell about what it means to be a purple person, her new animated series Central Park, and becoming a foster failure. We also put her knowledge of sloths to the test.

How did The World Needs More Purple People book come to be?

Basically my genius buddy, Ben Hart, and I were looking around and sort of seeing how our children were watching us debate healthily at the dinner table, which is fine. But it occurred to us that everything they were seeing was a disagreement. And that’s because that can be fun for adults, but it’s not a good basis for kids to start out on. We realized we were not really giving our kids a ton of examples of us, as adults, talking about the things that bring us together. So The World Needs More Purple People was born.

Book cover of Kristen Bell and Benjamin Hart's 'The World Needs More Purple People'
Random House via Amazon

We decided to create a roadmap of similarities to give kids a jumping off point of how to look for similarities ... [because] if you can see similarities, you’re more likely to walk through the world with an open mind. But if you walk into a conversation seeing only differences, your mind is going to think differently of that person’s opinion and you just never know when you’re going to hear an opinion that might enlighten you. So we wanted to give kids this roadmap to follow to basically say, “Here are some great features that no one can argue with. Have these features and you’ll have similarities with almost everyone on the planet.”

Part of the reason I love the book so much is because it encourages kids to ask questions, even if they're silly. What are some silly questions you’ve had to answer for your kids?

Oh my god. How much time do you have? Once she asked in rapid fire: Is Santa Claus real? Why is Earth? Who made dogs?

How do you even answer that?

It was too much; I had to walk away. Kids have a ton of questions, and as they get older and more verbal, the funny thing that happens is they get more insecure. So we wanted to encourage the question-asking, and also encourage the uniqueness of every child. Which is why Dan Wiseman, who did our illustrations, really captured this middle point between Ben and I. Ben is very sincere, and I am very quirky. And I feel like the illustrations were captured brilliantly because we also wanted a ton of diversity because that is what the book is about.

The book is about seeing different things and finding similarities. Each kid in the book looks a little bit different, but also a little bit the same. The message at the end of the book is with all these features that you can point out and recognize in other people—loving to laugh, working really hard, asking great questions ... also know that being a purple person means being uniquely you in the hopes that kids will recognize that purple people come in every color.

What was it like behind-the-scenes of writing a children’s book with two little girls at home? Were they tough critics?

Shockingly, no. They did not have much interest in the fact that I was writing a children’s book until there were pictures. Then they were like, “Oh now I get it.” But prior to that, when I’d run the ideas by them, they were not as interested. But I did read it to them. They gave me the two thumbs up. Ben has two kids as well, and all our kids are different ages. Once we got the thumbs up from the 5-year-old, the 7-year-old, the 8-year-old, and the 11-year-old, we thought, “OK, this is good to go.”

I hope that people, and kids especially, really do apply this as a concept. We would love to see this as a curriculum going into schools if they wanted to use it to ask: What happened today in your life that was purple? What could you do to make tomorrow more purple? Like as a concept of a way of living.

Weirdly, writing a children’s book was a way of getting to the adults. If it’s a children’s book, there is a high probability an adult is going to either be reading it to you or be there while you’re reading it—which means you’re getting two demographics. If we had just written a novel about this kind of concept, we’d never reach the kids. But by writing a kid's book, we also access the adults.

Your new show Central Park looks so incredible. What can you tell us about the show and your character Molly?

I am so excited for the show to come out. I’ve seen it and it is exceptional. It is so, so, so funny and so much fun. I signed on because I got a phone call from my friend Josh Gad, who said, “I’m going to try to put together a cartoon for us to work on.” And I said, “Yes. Goodbye.” And he and Loren Bochard, who created Bob’s Burgers, took basically all of our friends—Leslie Odom Jr., Stanley Tucci, Kathryn Hahn, Tituss Burgess, Daveed Diggs, and myself—and created a family who lives in the middle of Central Park.

I play a teenager named Molly who is very socially awkward but has this incredible, relentlessly creative, vivacious personality going on only inside her head … and it’s a musical! So, she's awkward on the outside but when she sings her songs she really comes to life. And she's a comic book artist, so the cartoon often switches to what she's seeing in her head.

It's so funny and Josh Gad plays this busker who lives in Central Park, who is the narrator. Stanley Tucci plays this older woman named Bitsy who is trying to build a shopping mall in the center of Central Park, and the family’s job is to basically save Central Park. But the music is so incredible. We’ve got two music writers, Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel, who write the majority of the music, but we also have guest writers that come in every episode. So Sara Bareilles wrote some music and Cyndi Lauper wrote some music. It is such a fun show.

My husband, who does not like cartoons or musicals, watched the first couple of episodes, and he looked at me and said, “You’ve got something really special in your hands.” And he doesn’t like anything. It made me so happy. I cannot wait until this show comes out, I am so proud of it.

What was it like to reunite with Josh Gad on another musical animated series that isn't Frozen?

Josh and I talk a lot, and we had a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations about how we can work together again, just because we adore each other. And part of it is because we get along socially, and part of it is because we trust each other comedically. He's a creator and writer more so than I am, so I usually leave it up to him and say, "What’s our next project?" We have other things in the pipeline we would love to do together, but [Central Park] was an immediate yes because I trust how he writes. Josh is at every single one of my recording sessions; he is very hands-on with the shows that he does or produces or creates. I trust him as much as I trust my husband, creatively, and that’s saying a lot.

Given your well-documented love of sloths, we do have to throw out a few true or false questions about sloths and put your knowledge to the test …

Oh my gosh. OK, now I'm nervous. Hit me.

True or false: Sloths fart more than humans.

Fart more than humans?

Yes.

I’m going to say it's true.

It’s actually false. Sloths don’t fart at all. They might be the only mammal on the planet that does not fart.

You’re kidding. Another reason to love them. You know, I was trying to think medically about it. I know they only poop once a week and that if you only go poop once a week ... I thought, “Well in order to keep your GI healthy, perhaps you have to have some sort of flow from the top to the bottom during the seven-day waiting period until you release.”

True or false: Sloths are so slow that algae sometimes grows on them.

One hundred percent true. In the wild, they’re always covered in algae and it helps their fur, all those microorganisms. But in zoos, they don’t have it.

Nice. OK, last one. True or false: Sloths poop from trees.

No way. They go down to the ground, and they rub their little tushies on the ground, and then they go back up.

You are correct.

I know a fair amount about sloths but the farting thing was new. My kids will be excited to hear that.

We heard recently that you are a part of the “foster failure” club. What went wrong? Erright?

Well, what I learned from Veronica Mars is you root for and cherish and uplift the underdog always. And my first foster failure was in 2018; I found the most undesirable dog that existed on the planet. She is made of toothpicks, it is impossible for her to gain weight. She has one eye. She looks like a walking piece of garbage. Her name is Barbara. She's 11 years old. And I saw a picture of her online and I said, “Yes. I just want to bring her over. I don’t even need to know anything else about her other than this picture," which was the most hideous picture. I mean it looks like a Rorschach painting or something. It was so awful. I was like, “She’s mine. I’ll take care of her. I’ve got this.” And it turns out she is quite lovely even though she can be pretty annoying. But she is our Barbara Biscuit, and she is one of the most charismatic dogs I have ever met. She piddles wherever she damn well pleases. So that is a bummer, because she is untrainable, but we love her.

That was our first failure. Then last year, we genuinely attempted to just foster a dog named Frank. And about two weeks in, I realized Frank was in love with me—like in a human way. He thought he was my boyfriend.

Oh no …

I just felt like … I didn’t even want a new dog—well I shouldn’t say that, because I always want all the dogs—but we weren’t planning on getting a new dog. But I had to have a conversation with my family and I said, “I think it’s going to be like child separation if I separate him. We have to keep him.” And sure enough, he can’t be more than two feet from me at any time during the day.

Does he still give you “the eyes”?

Oh my gosh. Bedroom eyes all day long. I can’t sit down without him like … not even just sitting comfortably in my lap. He has to have my arm in his mouth or part of my hair in his mouth. He’s trying to get back in my womb or something.

That’s love.

Yeah, I said, “What am I going to do? The guy is in love with me. He can live here.” So there is foster failure number two.

Wow, so it’s Frank and Barbara.

Frank and Barbara. And we also have Lola, a 17-year-old corgi-chow chow mix. Who I have had since she was one-and-a-half, who was also a pound puppy. She is our queen bee.

Before you go, we do this thing on Twitter called #HappyHour, where we ask our followers some get-to-know-you questions. If you could change one rule in any board game, what would it be?

I am obviously going to Catan ... oh I know exactly what I would do. In Catan, I would allow participants to buy a city without buying a settlement first. In Catan, you have to upgrade from a settlement to a city first, which is a waste of cards. If you have the cards for a city, you should be able to buy a city.

What was your favorite book as a child?

My favorite book as a child was Are You My Mother?

Aw, I love that one. I forgot about Are You My Mother?

It’s a good one.